Simopoulos v. Virginia, 462 U.S. 506 (1983)

2012-09-05 08:47:09

In 1973, the United States Supreme Court (the Court) handed down its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), holding that the right of privacy, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, encompasses a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The affirmed abortion right, however, never ended the abortion debate. In the next twenty years, for example, the Court had to make twenty-one more abortion decisions, and Simopoulos is one of them.

In Simopoulos, the appellant was an obstetriciangynecologist who practiced in Virginia. In November 1979, P.M., a seventeen-year-old high school student, approached the appellant at his unlicensed clinic and requested an abortion. P.M. was five months pregnant (well into the second trimester) and never advised her parents of her decision despite the appellant’s advice. After an injection of saline solution by the appellant at the clinic, P.M. aborted her fetus in a motel bathroom, and the police found the fetus later on the same day. As a result, the appellant was indicted for unlawfully performing an abortion during the second trimester of pregnancy outside of a licensed hospital and was convicted by Virginia courts.

On appeal, the Court affirmed the conviction. In its majority opinion, five justices held that Virginia’s requirement that the second trimester abortion be performed in licensed hospitals was constitutional. The Court reaffirmed that a state has an ‘‘important and legitimate interest in the health of the mother,’’ and it becomes compelling at approximately the end of the first trimester. Such interest allows the state to regulate the facilities and circumstances in which abortions are performed. Distinguishing from its decision in Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, 462 U.S. 416 (1983), the Court pointed out that the term ‘‘hospital,’’ defined by the Virginia Code (not by the Virginia abortion statute itself), was broad enough to include ‘‘outpatient hospitals.’’ Unlike provisions in Akron, the Virginia regulations did not require that ‘‘the patient be hospitalized as an inpatient or that the abortion be performed in a fullservice, acute-care hospital.’’ Rather, these regulations seemed to be generally compatible with accepted medical standards, and the Virginia’s requirement was not an unreasonable means of furthering the state’s compelling interest in protecting women’s health and safety. Three more justices also concurred that the Virginia’s requirement was not an undue burden on a woman’s decision to undergo an abortion and argued that the mandatory hospitalization requirement need not be contingent on the trimester. Justice Stevens dissented and believed that the exact meaning of the Virginia Code was ambiguous and that it requires further clarification.

Handed down along with Akron and Planned Parenthood v. Ashcroft, 463 U.S. 506 (1983), Simopoulos shows once again how the Court has been carefully balancing an individual’s rights with the state’s legitimate rights, especially in such a delicate abortion issue. Nevertheless, Simopoulos and other 1983 abortion decisions unequivocally reaffirmed women’s abortion right in Roe v. Wade.


References and Further Reading

  • Fox, Laura, The 1983 Abortion Decision: Clarification of the Permissible Limits of Abortion Regulation, University of Richmond Law Review 18 (1983): 137–159.
  • Harrison, Maureen, and Steve Gilbert, eds. Abortion Decisions of the United States Supreme Court: The 1980’s. Beverly Hills, CA: Excellent Books, 1993.

Cases and Statutes Cited