Poelker v. Doe 432 u.s. 519 (1977)

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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

432 U.S. 519

Poelker v. Doe

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEAL FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

No. 75-442 Argued: January 11, 1977 --- Decided: June 20, 1977
The city of St. Louis, in electing, as a policy choice, to provide publicly financed hospital services for childbirth but not for nontherapeutic abortions, held not to violate any constitutional rights. Maher v. Roe, ante p. 464.

515 F.2d 541, reversed and remanded.

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CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEAL FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

No. 75-442 Argued: January 11, 1977 --- Decided: June 20, 1977
PER CURIAM.

Respondent Jane Doe, an indigent, sought unsuccessfully to obtain a nontherapeutic abortion at Starkloff Hospital, one of two city-owned public hospitals in St. Louis, Mo. She subsequently brought this class action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Mayor of St. Louis and the Director of Health and Hospitals, alleging that the refusal by Starkloff Hospital to provide the desired abortion violated her constitutional rights. Although the District Court ruled against Doe following a trial, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed in [p520] an opinion that accepted both her factual and legal arguments. 515 F.2d 541 (1975). [n1]

The Court of Appeals concluded that Doe's inability to obtain an abortion resulted from a combination of a policy directive by the Mayor and a longstanding staffing practice at Starkloff Hospital. The directive, communicated to the Director of Health and Hospitals by the Mayor, prohibited the performance of abortions in the city hospitals except when there was a threat of grave physiological injury or death to the mother. Under the staffing practice, the doctors and medical students at the obstetrics-gynecology clinic at the hospital are drawn from the faculty and students at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, a Jesuit-operated institution opposed to abortion. Relying on our decisions in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973), the Court of Appeals held that the city's policy and the hospital's staffing practice denied the "constitutional rights of indigent pregnant women . . . long after those rights had been clearly enunciated" in Roe and Doe. 515 F.2d at 547. The court cast the issue in an equal protection mold, finding that the provision of publicly financed hospital services for childbirth but not for elective abortions constituted invidious discrimination. In support of its equal protection analysis, the court also emphasized the contrast between nonindigent women who can afford to obtain abortions in private hospitals and indigent women who cannot. Particular reliance was placed upon the previous decision in Wulff v. Singleton, 508 F.2d 1211 (CA8 1974), reversed on other grounds, 428 U.S. 106 (1976), in which the Court of Appeals [p521] had held unconstitutional a state Medicaid statute that provided benefits for women who carried their pregnancies to term but denied them for women who sought elective abortions. The court stated that "[t]here is no practical distinction between that case and this one." 515 F.2d at 545.

We agree that the constitutional question presented here is identical in principle with that presented by a State's refusal to provide Medicaid benefits for abortions while providing them for childbirth. This was the issue before us in Maher v. Roe, ante, p. 464. For the reasons set forth in our opinion in that case, we find no constitutional violation by the city of St. Louis in electing, as a policy choice, to provide publicly financed hospital services for childbirth without providing corresponding services for nontherapeutic abortions.

In the decision of the Court of Appeals and in the briefs supporting that decision, emphasis is placed on Mayor Poelker's personal opposition to abortion, characterized as "a wanton, callous disregard" for the constitutional rights of indigent women. 515 F.2d at 547. Although the Mayor's personal position on abortion is irrelevant to our decision, we note that he is an elected official responsible to the people of St. Louis. His policy of denying city funds for abortions such as that desired by Doe is subject to public debate and approval or disapproval at the polls. We merely hold, for the reasons stated in Maher, that the Constitution does not forbid a State or city, pursuant to democratic processes, from expressing a preference for normal childbirth as St. Louis has done. [n2]

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit [p522] is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

[For dissenting opinion of MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, see ante, p. 454.]

[For dissenting opinion of MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, see ante, p. 462.]

1. The facts concerning Doe's visit to the hospital and the reason for her inability to obtain an abortion are hotly disputed. Our view that the Court of Appeals erred in the application of the law to the facts as stated in its opinion makes it unnecessary to describe or resolve this conflict.

2. The Court of Appeals awarded attorney's fees to respondent under the "bad faith" exception to the traditional American Rule disfavoring allowance of such fees to the prevailing party. See Alyeska Pipeline Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240 (1975). I t follows from our decision on the constitutional merits that it was an error to award attorney's fees to respondent.
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