The Reproductive Rights Case the Supreme Court Decided *Not* to Decide

By Dov Fox

The landmark abortion decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt eclipsed quieter reproductive rights news out of the Supreme Court at the end of its term. It involves a couple’s claim that the Tennessee Supreme Court violated their equal protection rights by refusing to recognize “disruption of family planning as either an independent cause of action or element of damages.” You won’t have heard about this case. It wasn’t a merits judgment, but a decision not to decide. The Court’s denial of certiorari in Rye v. Women’s Care Center of Memphis has gone all but unremarked. It shouldn’t. This post lays out the arguments and why the Court (most likely) declined to hear it on appeal (without explaining its decision, as standard for cert denials). My updated article out in next year’s Columbia Law Review elaborates on the significance of professional wrongdoing that imposes, deprives, and confounds procreation in the face of people’s best efforts to plan a family.

The dispute arose during Michelle Rye’s third pregnancy. Rye has Rh negative blood, meaning that she produces antibodies that attack the blood cells of a Rh-positive fetus, potentially leading to serious harm in a born child. Doctors nowadays easily prevent this Rh-sensitization by injecting the pregnant woman with a compound called RhoGAM. But Rye’s doctor didn’t give her that injection. Now the couple couldn’t have more children of their own without risking serious health problems. Their Catholic faith took fetal testing and abortion off the table. They couldn’t even use birth control to prevent a risky pregnancy. Rye and her husband sued the doctor (who admitted negligence) for disrupting their family plans. Tennessee courts, all the way up to the state’s Supreme Court, rejected their claim. The courts held that the couple had not suffered the kind of injury that would support a legal cause of action. The Ryes’ petition to the U.S Supreme Court argued that the state Court’s refusal to recognize their claim denied them equal protection under the law. Continue reading

Whole Woman’s Health – Some preliminary thoughts on benefits, purposes, and fetal status

By Jonathan Will

The Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health is sure to be dissected in the coming days, weeks, and months.  In the meantime, I wanted to quickly reengage the discussion about the status of the “purpose prong” of Casey and what, if anything, Whole Woman’s Health tells us about it.  While Justice Breyer’s analysis in the majority opinion does not seem to be couched expressly in terms of Casey’s purpose prong, the majority’s willingness to assess the applicable laws’ benefits may ultimately be purpose dressed in different clothing.  If there is not sufficient evidence of a law’s benefit, there could be a problem.

As a quick refresher, recall that Casey prohibits laws that have either the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus.  While most folks can readily associate Casey’s “undue burden” test in terms of abortion restrictions that have the effect of placing obstacles, Priscilla Smith and Caitlin Borgmann, have written about courts seemingly ignoring Casey’s other mandate that laws should not have the purpose of even trying to place such obstacles (regardless of whether they succeed in creating that effect).  This avoidance of the purpose prong coupled with great deference to the asserted justifications of the legislature (without the kind of benefits inquiry seen in Whole Woman’s Health) has historically led to many TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion provider) laws being upheld.

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