High Court Allows Delay in Enforcing Abortion Measure
The California Supreme Court on Thursday refused to order the enforcement of a new state law requiring unmarried minors to obtain the consent of a parent or judge before receiving an abortion.
The justices rejected a request by state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp to overturn a trial court injunction barring enforcement of the law. The high court’s order, issued without dissent, means the law will not be enforced while its validity is further argued in the lower courts--proceedings that attorneys said could take a year or more.
In their action, the justices sidestepped what might have been their first major ruling on the politically charged issue of abortion since a conservative majority emerged on the court after the defeat of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other court members in the fall, 1986, election.
However, another case, challenging the legality of legislative restrictions on state-paid abortions for low-income women, is likely to reach the justices soon.
Thursday’s action, sending the parental-consent case back to the state Court of Appeal for further proceedings, was praised by attorneys for a coalition of medical groups that brought suit attacking the constitutionality of the law that had been set to take effect Jan. 1.
“This was the appropriate result,” said Linda E. Shostak, a San Francisco lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case. She added that, depending on the pace of further proceedings, it “could be years” before the issue of the law’s validity comes back before the state high court.
However, state Deputy Atty. Gen. Alan Ashby said that Van de Kamp and other law enforcement officials named as defendants in the suit would promptly renew their efforts in the state Court of Appeal to have the law ruled enforceable.
“We will try to get the case moving as soon as we can,” Ashby said.
Backers of the new law said they were disappointed with Thursday’s action but expressed confidence that the measure eventually would be upheld.
“It would have been nice for the law to go into effect and give us a chance to show that it can reduce both teen-age abortion rates and teen-age pregnancy rates,” said Brian Johnston, western regional director of the National Right to Life Committee. “But this is just one round in the battle.”
Under existing law, females of any age--minors or adults--have been able to obtain abortions as long as a physician concludes that they have made an informed and voluntary decision. About 30,000 unmarried minors a year now have abortions without the requirement of parental or judicial consent.
The new law, passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. George Deukmejian, requires that unmarried females under 18 obtain consent from one parent, a guardian or a juvenile court--unless there is a medical emergency.
The law provides for confidential and expedited proceedings and requires that judges must approve abortions if they conclude that the minor is sufficiently mature and informed to consent to the operation or that an abortion is in her “best interest.” No fees or costs are charged to minors.
To knowingly perform an abortion on an unmarried minor who has not obtained the required approval is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a 30-day jail term.
Last November, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups represented by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in San Francisco challenging the validity of the new law. The groups contended that minors, fearing parental reprisal, would endanger their health by delaying abortions or trying to induce them.
Confused and Intimidated
The plaintiffs in the suit argued that teen-agers would be confused and intimidated by the complexities of the judicial system and, despite the law’s requirement for confidentiality, they would be fearful of their identities becoming known.
In December, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Morton R. Colvin issued an injunction barring enforcement of the new law while its constitutionality was determined at trial. Colvin found that there was a “reasonable likelihood” the statute eventually would be struck down--and that if it were allowed to go into effect in the meantime, it could cause “irreparable harm.”
After a state Court of Appeal upheld Colvin’s order, Van de Kamp and the district attorneys from 58 counties also named as defendants in the case filed a petition with the state Supreme Court, contending that the new law was constitutional and should be allowed to take effect.
Van de Kamp argued that the Legislature had the right to change laws that have been found to have “detrimental consequences.”
The new law, he contended, legitimately encourages unmarried minors to consult with their parents or turn to an impartial judicial system, rather than having the critical decision of whether to obtain an abortion “made for them by the abortion provider.”