Court Re-enters Abortion Debate

Dale Spalding of Canned Heat sings during the Heros of Woodstock concert at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, N.Y., Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009, marking the 40th anniversary of the original 1969 Woodstock concert. AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

The Supreme Court, re-entering the politically charged abortion debate, agreed Monday to hear a state appeal seeking to reinstate a law requiring parental notification before minors can terminate their pregnancies.

Justices will review a lower court ruling that struck down New Hampshire's parental notification law. The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the 2003 law was unconstitutional because it didn't provide an exception to protect the minor's health in the event of a medical emergency.

The decision to review the emotional case, which came amid wide speculation that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's retirement is looming, will be heard in the next term beginning in October. Liberal groups have vowed to fight any Rehnquist replacement who opposes the high court's landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion.

In their appeal, New Hampshire officials argued that the abortion law need not have an "explicit health exception" because other state provisions call for exceptions when the mother's health is at risk. They also asked justices to clarify the legal standard that is applied when reviewing the constitutionality of abortion laws.

The New Hampshire law required that a parent or guardian be notified if an abortion was to be done on a woman under 18. The notification had to be made in person or by certified mail 48 hours before the pregnancy was terminated.

In its last major abortion decision in 2000, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that state abortion laws must provide an exception to protect the mother's health. Justices at the time reasoned that a Nebraska law, which banned so-called "partial-birth" abortions, placed an "undue burden" on women's abortion rights.

Since then, several lower courts have applied that health exception to abortion laws requiring parental notification. The New Hampshire case challenged whether the Supreme Court's 2000 ruling actually required that.

Abortion laws are "entirely different than parental involvement laws, which obviously do not purport to ban abortions, but simply seek to promote the interests of minors in having the benefit of parental involvement," New Hampshire legislators wrote in a friend-of-the-court filing.

In other decisions Monday, the Supreme Court:

  • ruled that it is unconstitutional to force capital murder defendants to appear before juries in chains and shackles.

  • turned aside an appeal by a Mexican citizen on death row in Texas, who contended he and 51 other Mexicans should have their death sentences overturned because they were improperly denied legal help from their consulates in violation of international law.

  • ruled that the government was within its rights to force beef producers to pay for a multimillion-dollar "Beef: It's what's for dinner" marketing program, even when individual cattle producers disagreed with the campaign.
    • Joel Roberts

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