The California Supreme Court, meeting for oral arguments Wednesday in Los Angeles, appeared to be divided over the constitutionality of a state law requiring minors to obtain parental or judicial permission for an abortion.
In a spirited debate, several justices expressed doubts that the law was legally sound. Justices Ronald George and Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, both appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson, repeatedly challenged the state lawyer who was defending the 1987 abortion law.
Passed by the Legislature but not enforced because of legal challenges, the law requires minor girls to obtain the consent of a parent or a judge before obtaining an abortion. About 30,000 unmarried teenagers have abortions each year in California.
George suggested that the law was flawed because it required minors to receive permission for an abortion but not to consult with parents about choosing motherhood, a potentially more "profound" decision with longer-term consequences.
But Justice Armand Arabian noted that the state already restricts minors in a variety of ways. Justice Marvin Baxter asked why teenage girls should be allowed to make an "end run" around their parents and go off to "an abortion mill."
The test of the law, which has been struck down by lower courts, comes as the court also considers another major case with potentially widespread ramifications. After grilling lawyers in the abortion case, the justices considered whether landlords should be allowed to use their religious beliefs to refuse to rent to unmarried couples, including gays and lesbians.
Although it is risky to predict how the court will vote on a case, some justices indicated that they have serious reservations about allowing religious landlords to evade a state law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of marital status.
In the abortion case, Deputy Atty. Gen. Ralph Johnson told the court that without the abortion law, parents can be denied the right of participating in their minors' health care decisions. Requiring consent by a parent or a judge, he said, would help protect the health of unmarried pregnant girls.
"What is the public health concern we are talking about when abortions are performed by licensed medical personnel?" George asked. He noted that it also could be argued that allowing a pregnancy to proceed to term poses public health concerns for the young mother and the fetus. The law, he added, does not require the mother to obtain prenatal care and appears simply to discourage abortions.
Arabian, weighing in on the other side, noted that other state laws require minors to obtain parental consent for medical and dental treatment and prohibit them from being sterilized or getting permanent tattoos. The deputy attorney general readily agreed, adding that there is not much minors are allowed to do without their parents' permission.
"But you can become pregnant and bear a child," Werdegar interceded. Referring to Arabian's arguments, she said: "That has nothing to do with going to the dentist." Werdegar, who is married to a physician, also said that a doctor could better counsel a pregnant teenager than a judge.
Lawyer Linda E. Shostak, opposing the law on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the court that most teenagers consult with a parent or other trusted adult before obtaining an abortion. Studies also show that teenagers generally are able to make informed and rational decisions about abortion, she said.
Both Johnson and Shostak declined after the arguments to predict how the court will vote. "I don't think you can ever tell," Shostak said.
In the arguments over a housing discrimination law, a lawyer for Chico landlady Evelyn Smith, 61, said she does not discriminate on the basis of marital status but simply wants the right to refuse to rent to fornicators.
A couple filed a discrimination complaint against Smith several years ago after she refused to rent to them when she learned they were unmarried. Smith contends that she believes she would be committing a sin if she rented one of her four units to people having sex outside marriage.
But Justice Stanley Mosk asked her attorney how Smith knew the couple would have sexual relations in her unit. The lawyer said it was a fair assumption. "When you have a man and a woman together there is always going to be sex?" Mosk asked.
Other justices expressed concerns that allowing an exemption for religious beliefs could lead to other kinds of discrimination. The court is expected to decide both cases within 90 days.