Poelker v. Doe, 432 U.S. 59 (1977)

This case involved the right to privacy as it has been applied to a woman’s right to an abortion, as upheld by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. Jane Doe was an indigent woman who attempted to obtain a nontherapeutic abortion at one of two public hospitals owned and operated by the city of St. Louis, Missouri. Notably, the hospital used many doctors and medical students from St. Louis University School of Medicine, a Jesuit-operated institution that opposes abortion, in the obstetrics and gynecology clinic. The policy of the city’s hospitals was to prohibit abortions except when there was a threat of significant physical injury or death to the mother. Doe also brought a class action suit against the mayor of St. Louis and the director of health and hospitals, but was unsuccessful in her constitutional challenge at the district court level. However, the court of appeals decided in her favor on both the facts and the legal issues.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, issuing only a per curiam decision that represented the views of six members of the Court. Though the court of appeals had based its decision in favor of Doe on an equal protection argument and asserted that the city hospitals’ policies discriminated against women who chose not to carry their pregnancies to term and against indigent women who could not afford to pay for a privately funded abortion, the majority of the Supreme Court concluded that the guiding precedent was Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464 (1977). In the Maher case, the Court had decided that a state’s refusal to offer Medicaid benefits for abortions while offering them for childbirth was constitutional. The Constitution does not forbid a state or a city to express a preference, through the democratic process, for childbirth.

Justices Marshall, Blackmun, and Brennan dissented; the essence of their dissent was that, under this ruling, an indigent woman can be barred by a city policy from exercising her constitutional right to choose to terminate her pregnancy. Justice Brennan further noted that during 1975 only about 18 percent of public hospitals in the country offered abortion services and that in ten states there were no public hospitals that would perform abortions. Thus, according to Justice Brennan, policies such as the one upheld by the majority presented an ‘‘insurmountable obstacle to indigent women’’ who attempted to exercise their constitutional rights.

MARY L. VOLCANSEK

References and Further Reading

  • O’Brien, David M. Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464 (1977)
  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

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