Women's Rights Up for Grabs in the Supreme Court

by Sarah Martin, Field Organizer - PAC/Reproductive Rights

NOW members and other feminist activists protest outside the Supreme Court te morning arguments are heard in the Brzonkala v. Morrison case.  Demonstrators were there to support Christy Brzonkala's civil rights under the Violence Against Women Act. Photo by Lisa Bennett-Haigney.

The U.S. Supreme Court will render decisions in three important challenges to women's rights this term. Two of the cases address challenges to women's access to abortion, determining the constitutionality of abortion procedures bans and bubble zone protection at clinics. The third reviews women's ability to sue attackers in federal court under the civil rights remedy of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The justices will announce their decisions before the Court adjourns for the year early this summer. NOW activists are already planning demonstrations in the event that any decision endangers women's rights.

Abortion Procedures Ban

A week before the 27th Roe v. Wade anniversary, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review Nebraska's abortion procedures ban in Stenberg v. Carhart. The Court will determine the constitutionality of the so-called partial-birth abortion bans and further define the extent to which states may place restrictions on abortion. Last fall, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that Nebraska's ban unduly burdened women seeking abortions because it prohibited some of today's safest and most common procedures. Less than a month later the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld bans in Wisconsin and Illinois, creating a split among the circuits.

The outcome in the Supreme Court is uncertain as is the impact on women's access to safe abortion procedures. Standards created by Roe have been weakened over the years by Supreme Court decisions on state and federal legislation. This case challenges the remaining distinctions between pre- and post-viability standards and the requirement of an exception in post-viability bans to preserve the woman's health. If the viability standard and the health exception are erased, a woman's well-being will become less important than that of the fetus. Safe abortion procedures will be eliminated, regardless of trimester or health risks to women. An anti-abortion Court decision could give fuel to the new face of anti-abortion legislation, like the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" which would establish rights for a fetus separate from those of a pregnant woman. (See article for more on this act).

Bubble Zones at Risk of Bursting

On Jan. 19 the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Hill v. Colorado, concerning the constitutionality of a Colorado law which created a floating bubble zone. The statute protects women, doctors and staff from anti-abortion harassment within 100 feet of a clinic by requiring protesters to keep at least eight feet away from people while they enter and leave reproductive health facilities.

In 1994 the Supreme Court upheld fixed buffer zone laws which prohibited demonstrations within 36 feet of clinic entrances, but in 1997 the Court struck down a judge-imposed floating bubble zone. After the 1997 ruling, the justices instructed Colorado's Supreme Court to reconsider that state's floating bubble zone law. After reevaluating the law, the state Supreme Court concluded that the Colorado law is constitutional. Based on past judicial decisions, the outcome of Hill is hard to predict, but the safety of women, doctors and staff hangs in the balance.

Violence Against Women

In Brzonkala v. Morrison the high court will decide whether survivors and victims of gender-motivated violence will continue to have the right to sue their attackers in federal court under VAWA's civil rights remedy. Christy Brzonkala's case argues that she must not be denied the right to seek justice for sex-based violence that violates her right to equal protection under the Constitution. Although no Constitutional amendment yet exists guaranteeing women's equality, a breakthrough 1994 vote in support of VAWA extended women's civil rights.

Subsequently, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals declared VAWA unconstitutional, ruling that Congress overstepped its authority. Oral arguments in the Brzonkala case came in the wake of Congress' failure to re-authorize VAWA during the year-end budget debate.

Re-authorization of VAWA would continue-and in some cases expand-funding for numerous anti-violence programs, including many hotlines, shelters and support services for survivors.

"The right to safety should be fundamental. Yet women continue to live in fear of violence-whether at home, in the streets, at work or in school. The threat of violence colors the decisions that women make everyday-like where to walk, when to go home and even what we say on our answering machines," NOW President Patricia Ireland said. "The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 only begins to address the problem-we have much more work left to do."

Many women's lives depend on these three decisions that nine Supreme Court Justices hold in their hands. NOW promises to protest loudly if any decision threatens the health and rights of women.

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