Medicolegal Issues

Abortion, the travel ban, and other top Supreme Court rulings affecting your practice

Author and Disclosure Information

Many decisions made by SCOTUS in the 2017–2018 term concern you and your patients. With Justice Kennedy retired, and his often deciding vote in 5-4 decisions, case outcomes for the next term may depend largely on the new face of the court.



The 2017−2018 term of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) was momentous. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had been the deciding vote in most of the 5 to 4 cases for a generation, announced his retirement as of July 31, 2018. In addition, the Court decided a number of cases of interest to ObGyns. In this article we review some of those cases, as well as consider the future of the Court without Justice Kennedy. In selecting cases, we have given special attention to those in which national medical organizations filed amicus briefs. These “amicus curiae” or “friend of the court” briefs are filed by an entity who is not party to a case but wants to provide information or views to the court.

1. Abortion rulings

The Court decided 2 abortion cases and rejected a request to hear a third.

National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v Becerra

In this case,1 the Court struck down a California law that required pregnancy crisis centers not offering abortions (generally operated by pro-life groups) to provide special notices to clients.2

At stake. These notices would inform clients that California provides free or low-cost services, including abortions, and provide a phone number to call for those services.

There were many amicus briefs filed in this case, including those by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and other specialty boards,3 as well as the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other pro-life organizations.4 ACOG’s brief argued that the California-required notice facilitates the goal of allowing women to receive medical services without harmful delay.

Final ruling. The Court held that the law required clinics to engage in speech with which the clinics disagreed (known as “compelled speech”). It also noted that California disclosure requirements were “wildly underinclusive” because they apply only to some clinics. The majority felt that there was no strong state interest in compelling this speech because there were other alternatives for the state to provide information about the availability of abortion and other services. The Court found that the clinics were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims of a First Amendment (free speech) violation.

Right to abortion for illegal immigrants in custody

A very unusual abortion case involved “Jane Doe,” a minor who was at 8 weeks’ gestation when she illegally crossed the border into the United States.5 She was placed in a federally-funded shelter where she requested an abortion. The facility denied that request.

At stake. Legal argument ensued about releasing her to another facility for an abortion, as the argument was made that pregnant minors who are apprehended crossing into the United States illegally and placed into the custody of federal officials should have abortion access. A lower Court of Appeals ruled against the Trump Administration’s policy of denying abortions to undocumented minors in federal custody. During the process of the federal government taking the case to the Supreme Court, the attorneys for Doe moved appointments around and, without notice, the abortion was performed. Government attorneys said that Doe’s attorneys made “what appear to be material misrepresentations and omissions” designed to “thwart [the Supreme Court’s] review” of the case.5 The government requested that the Court vacate the order of the Court of Appeals so that it could not be used as precedent.

Final ruling. The Court granted the governments request to vacate the lower court’s order because the minor was no longer pregnant and the order was therefore moot. The basic issue in this case (the right of in-custody minors to access abortions) remains unresolved. It is likely to appear before the Court in the future.

Continue to: Access to medical abortions

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