The Alaska Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on a state law that requires doctors to notify a pregnant minor's parents before she can undergo an abortion.
Voters put the law into place by approving a ballot initiative in 2010. A Superior Court judge decided the law was constitutional in a 2012 legal challenge. But, as expected by both sides of the debate, a 2013 appeal by pro-choice advocates landed the case before the five justices of the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
In general, the law says abortion providers must notify parents of girls 17 and younger at least 48 hours before performing an abortion, but does not require the parents' consent. There are exceptions allowing a girl to get an abortion if she goes before a judge or gets a notarized statement saying she was abused.
The law's opponents, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, have said it creates too many obstacles for pregnant girls and violates their privacy rights. Supporters say parents should be involved in the abortion decision and that the state has an interest in helping parents with their responsibilities.
Janet Crepps, a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights, argued Wednesday that Alaska equal rights laws are not supposed to allow the government to treat a girl who wants an abortion differently than one who wishes to carry her pregnancy to full term. The notification law could discourage pregnant minors from seeking medical care at all, she said.
"Both groups need timely access to health care in order to adequately protect their health," Crepps said. "The delays associated with the law will harm minors' health. What the state improperly characterizes as a sacrifice of parental rights, in favor of minors seeking prenatal care, is actually a sacrifice of the health of minors seeking abortions."
Forcing a girl to testify about abuse or get a notarized statement about abuse to bypass parental notification created too much of a burden, and it was unlikely that the girl would lie about abuse in such a situation, Crepps said.
"What's the problem with having the minor have to swear or affirm that the statement they're making is true?" Chief Justice Dana Fabe asked.
"It requires notarization, which for some minors will be a substantial obstacle," Crepps said.
"The doctor's office could have a notary standing by, as one of their staff, couldn't they?" Fabe asked.
"They could, your honor, and perhaps that could be a result," Crepps said. "But for a minor who wants to find out if she's going to be able to use this exception before she arrives at the doctor's office, she would have to get this notarization beforehand."
Duringargument by the defense, Justice Daniel Winfree asked Margaret Paton-Walsh, an assistant attorney general and part of the state's trial team in the Superior Court case, if the state had an interest in favoring either a girl seeking an abortion or one seeking to carry her pregnancy to term.
"It doesn't haveinterest in affecting the decision, abortion or carry to term," Paton-Walsh said. "It has a very strong interest in encouraging a girl who has decided to carry to term to seek early and constant prenatal care, so that her health and the fetus' health is taken appropriate care of, regardless of what her final decision may be."
Paton-Walsh disagreed that the law's abuse exception was, as Crepps said, among the most burdensome in the country. There are many states that do not give minors a way to bypass the notification, Paton-Walsh said. The Alaska law was written to take into account that in the cases of some minors, the notification is inappropriate, and it allows for either the notarized statement or a hearing before a judge, she said.
"If you have two doors to go through, rather than one door to go through, you have more options, not fewer," Paton-Walsh said.
At the end of her rebuttal, Crepps asked the justices to strike down the law in its entirety. They would announce a decision at a later date, Fabe, the chief justice, said.