What is the significance of the court ruling in Poelker v Doe?

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This case is not one of the most significant cases in American legal history.  It is one of a number of cases that has helped to clarify the meaning of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

In Roe, which was decided in 1973, the Court decided that states may not impose outright bans on abortion.  The Court held that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion within some limits.  In general, the Court held that states cannot prohibit abortions during the first three months of pregnancy but that they can put more and more restrictions on abortion as a pregnancy continues.

Poelker was decided in 1977.  In this case, the city of St. Louis, Missouri, provided a hospital that was to be used for childbirth.  This was a publicly funded hospital.  An indigent woman went to the hospital and tried to get an abortion.  This abortion was not medically necessary.  Instead, it was “nontherapeutic.”  The hospital refused to provide the abortion.  The woman sued, saying that her constitutional right to obtain an abortion had been infringed upon. 

In this case, the Supreme Court sided with the St. Louis city government.  It held that there was no affirmative duty on the part of the government to provide abortion facilities.  The government could not ban abortions, but it did not have to provide facilities in which women could obtain them.  Thus, the case is significant because it helped to clarify the extent of abortion rights in this country.


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