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Abortions, right to life and juvenile executions

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series that takes a look at how several Missouri cases helped shape current interpretations of citizens’ rights under the Constitution of the United States.


Daily Journal Staff Writer

Too many Americans are ignorant about the framework of freedom that guides this country, a Southeast Missouri State University history professor told Mineral Area College students last week. Dr. Frank Nickell told students that he hoped the week-long attention to the U.S. Constitution in schools and government offices will persuade more people to read the document and understand how it applies to their lives.

As part of that focus on the U.S. Constitution and its 27 amendments, the Daily Journal looked at six major Missouri cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Saturday’s story looked at three cases that addressed whether slaves had Constitutional rights, the constitutionality of offering women an automatic exemption from juries based on gender and limitations on school newspapers.

Three other cases dealt with women’s reproductive rights, the right to refuse treatment that merely delays death, and constitutionality of executing someone who was a juvenile at the time of his or her crime.

The three cases, in chronological order:

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services

In 1986, Missouri’s Gov. John Ashcroft signed a bill that amended state law regarding unborn children and abortions. The new law included provisions that life begins at conception and unborn children have constitutional rights. The law also said that physicians must perform medical exams and tests to determine whether the fetus is viable before they could perform an abortion on any woman who was 20 or more weeks pregnant.

The bill made it unlawful to use public employees or facilities for any abortions that weren’t necessary to save the mother’s life. It also was against the law for public employees, facilities or funds to be used in order to encourage or counsel a woman to have an abortion – unless it was to save her own life.

One month after Ashcroft signed the bill, five state health professionals and two nonprofit corporations filed a class action lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the law. They contended that provisions in the new law violated the First, Fourth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The District Court declared seven provisions of the law unconstitutional. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, and said Missouri’s stance that life begins at conception was “impermissible” and was made up to justify the state’s abortion laws.

However, the U.S. Supreme court allowed the state to keep the definition of the beginning of life because there was not enough evidence to show that the definition would be used to restrict protected activities such as birth control and abortion. The high court also upheld the decision that Missouri could bar the use of public facilities for abortions and ruled in favor of the requirement to test for viability of a fetus before an abortion as long as the tests were not imprudent or careless.

The Supreme Court did not address the provision dealing with public funding. The court also refused to overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that established the constitutionality of abortions.

Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health

In January 1983, Nancy Cruzan was driving in Jasper County when she lost control of her car, went off the road and overturned. Paramedics found no heartbeat or signs of breathing. The resuscitated her and took her to a hospital, where she remained in a coma for three weeks before dropping into a vegetative state.

Her parents asked the hospital to end the life-support procedures, but employees would not do so without court approval. The trial court ruled there was enough evidence that Cruzan would not want to prolong her life in a vegetative state, and ruled that the hospital should remove Cruzan from the life-support procedures.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that although Cruzan was in a vegetative state, she was not legally dead or terminally ill and that her right to refuse treatment did not outweigh Missouri’s policy toward preservation of life. The court did not find reliable claims that Cruzan said she would not want to “live as a vegetable.”

The state court ruled that no one could make the decision to end medical treatment for an incompetent person unless there was special provisions or “clear and convincing, inherently reliable evidence.”

The U.S. Supreme Court supported the Missouri Supreme Court’s position.

Despite the decision, additional witnesses later presented evidence of Cruzan’s wishes that satisfied the Missouri courts. In December 1990, the hospital removed Cruzan’s nutrition and hydration tubes. Cruzan died two weeks later.

As a result of the case, health care directives in Missouri may remove medically assisted nutrition and hydration after a diagnosis of permanent or persistent vegetative state.

Roper v. Simmons

When he was a 17-year-old junior in high school, Christopher Simmons and a younger friends broke into a house in St. Louis County and bound a woman with duct tape. They drove her to a state park and threw her off a bridge into the Meramec River, where she drowned. At the age of 18, Simmons was found guilty and was sentenced to death.

His subsequent appeals were denied and in 2002, the Missouri Supreme Court set an execution date for May.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court had recently ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that it was unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded persons. Simmons attorneys filed a petition in Missouri Supreme Court, saying that the reasoning behind the Atkins decision showed it also was unconstitutional to execute a juvenile.

The Missouri Supreme Court postponed Simmons’ execution to June, then issued a stay. After hearing his arguments, the court found in Simmons’ favor in August 2003. The court stated that executing juveniles “violates evolving standards of decency and is, therefore, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” The court resentenced Simmons to life in prison without any possibility of parole.

State Attorney Jay Nixon appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

During high court hearings, experts on child development and brain development testified that juveniles are more likely to exhibit immature thinking and underdeveloped responsibility than adults, and that they are more susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures. The court also addressed society’s increasing reluctance to execute juveniles in this country and across the world.

In March of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision and banned the execution of juveniles under the age of 18.

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