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Alaska judge says parental notification law doesn't violate state constitution

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Stephen Nowers illustration

In what no doubt will be the first of many decisions in this round on the topic of teens and abortion, a state judge in Anchorage has found that an Alaska law requiring physicians to notify a parent, guardian or custodian if a minor seeks an abortion is constitutional. The decision is likely to rouse up pro and anti abortion groups, particularly this close to the Nov. 6 general election.

In a 65-page decision, which charts the long and tangled history in Alaska regarding parental notification and consent, Alaska Superior Court Judge John Suddock found abortion was, by and large, safe and that parental notification didn’t make it safer. He also said that teens ages 16 to 17, typically the group seeking abortions, were largely mature enough to make their own decisions.

Nonetheless, Suddock found the state had a compelling interest in the parental notification law and that the law itself “will prod some pregnant minors to alert their parents without adverse consequence.” He also wrote that some “minors might be pleasantly surprised when (they find they) underestimated parents’ support, comfort...”

The law, which passed through a ballot initiative, provides what’s called “judicial bypass.” That means that if a teen cannot secure parental approval, she could seek permission from a judge. Planned Parenthood argued that such a requirement puts an undue burden on minors, particularly in rural Alaska's villages, where everybody knows each other. The judge disagreed. He found that it was a relatively easy process and that judges allow such bypass in Alaska and other states with “virtual unanimity.”

Clover Simon, federal program director for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest in Anchorage, said the group hasn’t decided if it will appeal but is examining the decision closely. The last law passed by the Alaska Legislature was in legal limbo until the Alaska Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in 2007.

Suddock did strike down other aspects of the law, including the part that subjected physicians who performed abortion procedures to unlimited civil liability and a more burdensome judicial bypass process than was in the law.

No doubt pro-life lawmakers are also examining the decision.

So much talk surrounding next month’s state election has focused on oil taxes. Less discussed are other issues -- namely abortion -- that could also be hotly debated in the next session of the Alaska Legislature, especially if the Senate bipartisan coalition doesn’t survive the election. The parental notification law got held up by that bipartisan collation and, therefore, found its way on the ballot.

Break up the majority coalition by electing more conservative senators, and Alaskans may also be voting to return abortion to the table, a prospect that excites pro-life groups and worries supporters of a woman's right to choose.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com