Trial challenging Alaska abortion notification law begins

Mary Pemberton

A trial began Monday in Planned Parenthood's ongoing challenge of a law requiring minors in Alaska to notify their parents before getting an abortion.

The organization, which provides women's health and reproductive care, including abortion services, is challenging the constitutionality of the law.

But a lawyer for the state told the judge it can prove Planned Parenthood wrong on each of its points by looking at how the law has actually worked since it was implemented 14 months ago.

The law, approved by voters in August 2010, is working as intended, said Assistant Attorney General John Treptow.

"Abortion is a complex and weighty decision," he said. "Once the decision is made to abort, it can't be reversed."

Former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, one of three sponsors of the initiative, said outside the Anchorage courtroom that the law is functioning as intended.

"A parent really needs to be aware," he said.

Both sides gave their opening arguments before Superior Court Judge John Suddock -- the same judge who made some changes to the law in December 2010 shortly before it went into effect. Suddock at that time also refused Planned Parenthood's request to block the law. The bench trial is expected to last 15 days.

Planned Parenthood is challenging the law on four fronts. It says the law denies minors equal protection under the law, violates minors' privacy rights, violates minors' due process rights and violates due process rights of abortion providers.

The first witness was Dr. Philip Darney, distinguished professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health.

Alaska's parental notification law is bad for women's health, particularly that of young women, and serves no useful public service function, he said.

The law interferes with the relationship physicians have with their patients, Darney said.

He described abortion as being "very safe" in the United States, with about six deaths per 1.2 million procedures and with most of those deaths coming after the first trimester. He said carrying a baby to term and giving birth is 20 times more hazardous than having a first-trimester abortion.

For those women who do decide against abortion, minors are more likely to encounter complications, he said.

In sum, the parental notification law "doesn't make public health sense," Darney said.

Treptow said a look at how the law actually has functioned in the last 14 months will show that no minors wanting abortions were denied them. When parents needed to be notified, it took one call and there were no delays, he said.

Seven times minors requested use of the law's bypass provision, he said. Judges granted the bypass six times and in the remaining case the request was withdrawn. Just one of those requests, and one that was granted, was because of abuse, he said.

Lawyer Kevin Clarkson urged Suddock not to be taken in by the "elaborate claims" made by Planned Parenthood, including that girls will be beaten and thrown out of their homes if they tell their parents they are pregnant.

Clarkson said that hasn't happened and added that the magnitude of risk from childbirth compared to having an abortion was "infinitesimally small."

Associated Press