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High Court Avoids Ruling on Abortion Case

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High Court Avoids Ruling on Abortion Case


High Court Avoids Ruling on Abortion Case

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm MICHELLE Norris. Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its first abortion case since the year 2000. The court reiterated that restrictions on abortion are unconstitutional if they do not provide for an exception to protect the health of the pregnant woman. This unanimous ruling came in a case testing a law requiring minors to notify their parents before having an abortion. But it steered clear of any major new pronouncements.

NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.


At issue before the court was a New Hampshire law requiring that the parents of minors be notified 48 hours before an abortion. The only exception to that was in cases where an abortion was needed to prevent imminent death, or if the minor got permission from a judge.

The lower courts invalidated the law in its entirety for a variety of reasons, among them that the statute provided no exception to protect the health of a minor. New Hampshire appealed to the Supreme Court, contending that no such exception was necessary. But today, the high court ruled that it is.

On a court that's usually been closely divided about abortion, this time the decision was unanimous and narrowly drawn. Writing for the court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in what could be her final decision before retiring, began by saying, we do not revisit our abortion precedents today. But she went on to do just that, writing that the court has held repeatedly that restrictions on abortion must provide for exceptions to protect the health of the mother.

She also noted that the court has held repeatedly that states have the right to require parental involvement in abortion decisions by minors. Thus, in the New Hampshire statute before the court, she said the question is what to do about a parental notification statute that does not include a health exception. Should the lower court simply write in a health exception, or would the New Hampshire legislature have preferred no law at all to one with a health exception?

In sending the case back to the lower courts to make that determination, the Supreme Court instructed those courts to invalidate the New Hampshire law insofar as it fails to protect the health of minors in medical emergencies. In some very small percentage of cases, said the court, pregnant minors, like adult women, need immediate abortions to avert serious and often irreversible damage to their health.

The American Medical Association filed a brief in this case noting that there are several conditions that, while relatively uncommon, do occur in significant numbers, especially in teenagers, and pose a significant threat to the health of the mother. Conditions that without an immediate abortion could cause lifelong complications, organ damage and infertility.

The Supreme Court's ruling today was greeted as a victory by both sides in the abortion debate. New Hampshire Representative Fran Wendelboe, a key pro-life supporter of the legislation at issue in today's case, was thrilled.

Representative FRAN WENDELBOE (Republican, New Hampshire State Legislature): I think that's a huge win. I think those states who have very broad health exceptions that you could drive a truck through, consistent with what I believe this opinion says, can now narrow them to mean more along the line of health exceptions meaning your physical health, and further defining it now under this as an emergency situation.

TOTENBERG: But the ACLU's Jennifer Dalven, who represented abortion providers in the case, saw the decision differently.

Ms. JENNIFER DALVEN (Deputy Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project): We are really welcoming the decision, because it reaffirms that laws that restrict abortion must contain exceptions for medical emergencies. It tells politicians that they cannot jeopardize women's health when they pass abortion laws.

TOTENBERG: Planned Parenthood President Karen Pearl, however, saw the decision in the political context of a court with a changing composition.

Ms. KAREN PEARL (Interim President, Planned Parenthood Federation of America): When we look at the bigger picture, we don't have any more knowledge today than we did yesterday where the Supreme Court is going.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, the court has pending before it right now a test case on the federal law banning so-called partial birth abortions, a law with no health exception.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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