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Alaska Supreme Court strikes down parental notification law

July 25, 2016 — The Alaska Supreme Court on Friday ruled 4-1 to strike down a state law that required abortion providers to notify the parents of a minor seeking abortion care, Reuters reports.

Background

Abortion providers and Planned Parenthood had challenged the law, noting that it could be especially harmful to teenagers whose parents are abusive (Johnson, Reuters, 7/22). Laura Einstein, chief legal counsel for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands (PPGNHI), said Alaska's law was even harsher than parental notification requirements in 11 other states. She also noted the difficulty of obtaining a judicial bypass (Bohrer, AP/U.S. News & World Report, 7/22).

The law, which took effect in 2010, required a physician providing abortion care to a minor to inform the minor's parents at least 48 hours prior to the procedure. The law permitted minors to seek judicial bypass, and it included a limited exception in instances of medical emergency (Reuters, 7/22). The law did not apply to women ages 16 or 17 who were married, financially independent from their parents or who had court documentation stating that they were legally emancipated. The law required that a minor facing parental abuse produce a statement, signed by herself and a witness of the abuse, in order to obtain abortion care without parental notification.

As written, the law allowed a minor's parents to sue the provider for damages. A lower court struck down that provision, though the state sought its reinstatement (AP/U.S. News & World Report, 7/22). The lower court ruling, which upheld the notification law, also had reinstated a provision that imposes criminal fines of up to $1,000 and five years in prison for providers who knowingly violate the law (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/10/12).

Ruling details

In the majority opinion, Justice Daniel Winfree wrote that the law violates the equal protection guarantee of the Alaska Constitution by presenting a "discriminatory barrier to those minors seeking to exercise their fundamental privacy right to terminate a pregnancy" (Reuters, 7/22).

Winfree wrote that the law is discriminatory because it involves the state in the medical decisions of a minor who wants abortion care but not those of a minor who opts to carry her pregnancy to term. "The notification law is under-inclusive because the governmental interests asserted in this case are implicated for all pregnant minors -- as they face reproductive choices and as they live with their decisions -- and the asserted justifications for disparate treatment based upon a minor's actual reproductive choice are unconvincing," Winfree wrote (Herz, Alaska Dispatch News, 7/23).

In a concurring opinion, Justice Dana Fabe wrote that rather than violating a minor's right to equal protection, the law violated a minor's right to privacy. She wrote, "I believe that the Alaska Constitution permits a parental notification law, but not one that contains provisions that are among the most restrictive of any state's notification laws." According to Fabe, the law's penalties for physicians who violate the law were "more punitive and chilling" than those imposed under other states' parental notification laws (AP/U.S. News & World Report, 7/22).

Comments

PPGNHI President and CEO Christine Charbonneau praised the ruling, stating, "We all want teens to be safe -- and the sad truth is that some teens live in dangerous homes and can't go to their parents" (Reuters, 7/22). She said the law, if permitted to stand, "would [have] prevent[ed] some of Alaska's most vulnerable teens from accessing safe medical care" (Alaska Dispatch News, 7/23).

Joshua Decker, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, also voiced approval for the decision. "A young woman seeking an abortion doesn't need additional hurdles. She needs a doctor," he said (AP/U.S. News & World Report, 7/22).