States Weigh Restrictions on Abortions for Teenagers

By Ellen Flax — November 29, 1989 4 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments this week in two cases involving adolescents’ access to abortion--an issue on which action also is intensifying at the state level.

Ever since the High Court ruled in July in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that states can adopt laws limiting the availability of abortion, legislatures and courts in several states have been grappling with measures that would restrict minors’ ability to undergo the procedure.

According to anti-abortion and abortion-rights groups, over the past 15 years between 26 and 35 states have adopted measures requiring girls under age 18 to notify or get the consent of at least one parent before having an abortion.

Most of these measures have not been enforced, having either been declared unconstitutional by federal courts or enjoined pending further judicial review.

The Webster decision was announced after the end of most legislatures’ 1989 sessions. But activists on both sides of the abortion issue say they expect parental-consent and parental-notification measures to take center stage in many states during 1990.

“In my view, it’s been the hot issue since Webster,” said Kathryn Colbert, the state-level coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union’s reproductive-freedom project. “Anti-abortion people look at the polls and see there is widespread support for involving parents in the abortion decision.”

“This is not a radical position,” said Mary Spaulding, the associate state legislative coordinator for the National Right to Life Committee. “There is some popular support for this.”

Nearly half of the more than one million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 who become pregnant each year choose to have an abortion. They account for more than a quarter of all abortions performed annually.

Statistics gathered by the Alan Guttmacher Institute suggest that nearly 18 percent of American women will have had an abortion by their 20th birthday.

Bypass Provisions

Supporters of the consent and notification provisions argue that such laws encourage parent-child communication and give parents a greater role in their children’s lives.

Opponents of the laws, however, portray the measures as a prelude to even more restrictive abortion statutes.

Many of the existing laws governing teenagers’ access to abortion include provisions that permit judges to waive the notification requirements if they feel the girl is mature enough to make her own decision or that the procedure is in her best interest.

In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that parental-consent laws must contain bypass provisions.

Action at State Level

Recent actions at the state level include:

The Oregon chapter of Right to Life has begun a campaign to place an initiative on the November 1990 ballot to require medical personnel to notify parents at least 48 hours before an abortions on teenagers.

The proposed initiative contains no judicial-bypass procedure. Current state law grants teenagers over age 15 the same access to abortion as adults.

A bill that would require pregnant girls to obtain parental consent or a court order before having an an abortion was approved by the Michigan Senate last month. Gov. James J. Blanchard, an abortion-rights supporter, has said he would veto the bill if it is passed by the House.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Thomas Scott, a spokesman for the Governor. “It’s not a parental-consent bill. It’s an anti-abortion bill.”

A committee in the Wisconsin Assembly has endorsed a bill that would require teenagers, under most circumstances, to seek the consent of at least one of their parents or another adult relative before having an abortion. Gov. Tommy G. Thompson will sign the measure if it wins final approval, an aide said last week.

This fall, the Florida supreme court struck down a state law that required pregnant teenagers to obtain parental consent before having an abortion. The court ruled that the state constitution’s privacy clause protected the right of both adults and teenagers to have an abortion.

Also this fall, a federal judge in Arizona prevented a similar law from taking effect pending its review by the state supreme court.

This summer, a federal judge ruled that a Tennessee parental-consent law that was supposed to take effect on July 1 was unconstitutional.

In Kansas, Gov. Mike Hayden has proposed that girls under the age of 16 be required to notify at least one parent before having an abortion.

Supreme Court Cases

Legal experts say the two cases before the Supreme Court could resolve much of the uncertainty regarding the constitutionality of such laws.

In Hodgson v. Minnesota, (Case No. 88-1125) the Court will rule on the constitutionality of a parental-notification law that requires minors to notify both parents, regardless of their family situation, before they can have an abortion.

Nearly half of the minors seeking abortions in the state have asked state judges to allow them to bypass the notification requirement, according to a brief filed by lawyers representing the group challenging the law.

In Ohio v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health (No. 88-805), the Justices have been asked to review a state law that requires doctors to notify personally at least one parent or guardian before performing abortions on minors.

They also have been asked by the state to declare judicial-bypass provisions unnecessary. A lower court has ruled that the bypass procedure, which can take up to three weeks, is unconstitutionally burdensome on girls seeking abortions.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as States Weigh Restrictions on Abortions for Teenagers