8 minute read

Bellotti v. Baird

Significance

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision did more than reaffirm a woman's constitutionally-protected right to choose to have an abortion. Although a state could restrict access to abortion by requiring parental consent, an alternative for redress had to be available through the courts. Moreover, a state's requirement for parental consent could not be, in application, inconsistent with judicial guidance in Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth (1976), which was equivalent to what was an "absolute, and possibly arbitrary, veto."

In the late summer of 1974, the legislature of the state of Massachusetts overrode the governor's veto and adopted an act regulating abortion in that state. The act to Protect Unborn Children and Maternal Health (Unborn Children Act) required parental (or guardian's) consent for an unmarried women under 18 years of age to obtain an abortion. The statute also stipulated that if any parent or guardian refused, consent could be granted by order of a superior court if, after a hearing, the presiding judge believed there was sufficient justification "for good cause."

As soon as the law was passed, public controversy arose between pro- and anti-abortion factions. Thus, although scheduled to become law at the end of October of 1974, a suit filed in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts prevented enactment of the statute. The thrust of the claim--brought by William R. Baird, Jr. (championed as a key figure for the pro-abortion movement), Parents' Aid Society, four anonymous, pregnant female adolescents, and Dr. Gerald Zupnick (director of a Parents' Aid center)--argued that the Unborn Children Act violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The district court found merit in the appellees' (then plaintiffs') arguments. A preliminary court order was issued enjoining the enactment of the statute. In rendering a decision, the district court held as unconstitutional the provision of the Unborn Children Act requiring parental consent.

One of the main arguments centered on the notion that all adolescents who were pregnant were qualified to decide, independently, whether to terminate a pregnancy. The district court did not accept that premise, but did believe that a "substantial number of females under the age of eighteen are capable of forming a valid consent," and "a significant number of (these) are unwilling to tell their parents." The court also noted, "there can be no doubt that a female's constitutional right to an abortion in the first trimester does not depend upon her calendar age." Hence, justices of the district court believed Massachusetts' statute did not serve the best interests of minor, pregnant women.

The appellants later requested a judicial review by the US Supreme Court. While the Court acknowledged its jurisdiction in the matter, the justices also held the opinion that the case should have been resolved by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The case was remanded back to the lower court with instructions that the district court should have refrained from ruling on the statute's constitutionality without first certifying to the state court questions which would clarify the meaning and intent of the law.

In certifying to the state court, the district court posed two critical questions. Did the Unborn Children Act allow adolescents, regardless of maturity, to gain judicial consent for an abortion without consulting parents? And, if a superior court ascertained a minor had already made an informed, reasonable decision to abort a fetus, could a justice refuse consent if s/he felt that the decision of the court or a parent was better? The Supreme Court of Massachusetts answered that without parental consent, it was not possible for a minor to gain judicial approval for a nonemergency abortion unless her parents were not available. Parents also had to be notified of all judicial proceedings. Moreover, a superior court could overrule a minor's decision regardless of the quality of that decision.

After certification from the state court, the district court declared the statute unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction. The court held that a large majority of minors were capable of making independent and informed decisions. Therefore, parental consent was an unnecessary burden on a minor woman's right to an abortion. The justices (the case impaneled three) also held that the act violated the constitutional guarantees of a pregnant minor because a court or parents could deny consent on any grounds regardless of whether the minor had made an informed, reasoned decision. The state appealed the decision of the district court to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In arguing its case, the appellant's (Massachusetts) attorney both questioned whether the judgment of the district court provided appropriate remedy and questioned whether the U.S. Supreme Court had jurisdiction to judge the statute's constitutionality. Counsel pointed out that state legislators were motivated to enact the Unborn Children Act in response to the growing rate of teenage pregnancies (one million teen women aged 15 to 19 became pregnant each year). Since, in the opinion of state legislators, adolescents were not equipped to make informed and independent decisions regarding abortion, the statute's intent, counsel argued, was to protect and promote the best interests of minors. The appellants, therefore, felt it was inappropriate to invalidate the act because parental consent was required. The state's legislators believed that abortion was a difficult decision for which only a minor's family could provide the best help and advice. Counsel pointed out that the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 1973, concluded that minors were not equipped to make a rational decision regarding abortion. Thus, by requiring parental consent for an abortion, legislators believed that it would encourage supportive parental counseling which would be in the best interests of minor women. Counsel for the appellants further maintained that the statute seemed rather liberal because it only restricted minor women with regard to sterilization and abortion.

In arguing their case, the chief attorney for the appellees expressed that the clause of the Unborn Children Act requiring parental consent for an abortion imposed an undue burden upon a minor. He pointed out that in Roe v. Wade (1973), the Court had ruled that every woman had a constitutional right to decide, in consultation with her physician, whether to bear a child or to terminate a pregnancy. Thus, the statute's provisions seemed to be in violation of a woman's constitutional rights because it demanded judicial consent, which could be denied even if a minor was found mature enough to make an informed decision. Furthermore, in requiring parental consent, the act did not take into account parents who had been separated for years or whether the mother's doctor even approved of abortion. On the surface, the statute's provision that a superior court's consent for an abortion could be based on "good cause," in fact was spurious, since the consent of both parents was still required regardless of a judge's findings.

In adjunct testimony, John H. Henn (a representative from the Parenthood League) voiced concern that the provisions of the Massachusetts statute seemed to impose an unreasonable burden even for a minor mature enough to make informed decision. Having to go to court and fight her parents could only result in disrupting family relations, whether she "beat" her family in court or lost her case. Moreover, the state's interest in safeguarding minor women was already met through existing Massachusetts law because physicians were required to assess the maturity of a woman seeking an abortion.

In expressing the majority opinion of the Court, Justice Powell explained that their decision was mitigated by three principles which had been previously recognized by the Court. First, the Court recognized the unique role of minors in the social and legal system. Because "neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone," minors were entitled to constitutional protection. However, Powell pointed out that Ginsberg v. New York (1968) found that the state was entitled to limit a minor's freedom of choice if such limitation was in the minor's best interests. Children were not equipped for and did not have the experience or perspective to make mature choices. Moreover, he explained, the Court had recognized that the guiding role of parents was very important in the upbringing of children. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the Court held that "the child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."

Despite previous decisions with respect to the legal roles of parents and children, the Court found that the Unborn Children Act infringed on the constitutional right of a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy. Both Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton (1973) unequivocally established that a woman, even a minor, may, after consultation with a physician, terminate her pregnancy. The justices agreed that the state had an interest in encouraging minors to inform their parents and that together, they should seek a solution whether or not the minor should bear a child. But, the Court noted, a significant number of pregnant minors were not willing to inform their parents. Sometimes justifiable, mitigating factors such as a historical unwillingness to parent, child abuse, or even abandonment by parents rendered the Massachusetts statute's parental consent requirement an ineffective measure, which only served to restrict the constitutional right of a pregnant, minor woman.

A woman who chose to terminate her pregnancy was entitled to constitutional protection. Thus, the justices did not favor granting a "third-party veto" even if by a judge or appointed administrator. Citing Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, Stevens explained that the Court had not only invalidated another statute requiring spousal approval but also one requiring parent consent (for minor unmarried woman) as a prerequisite to gain an abortion. The Court thus found the Massachusetts Unborn Children Act was not within constitutional limits and the justices affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Justice White wrote the dissenting opinion. (Note: Since White also dissented in Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, some comments reflected opinions expressed in that decision.) He felt that there was one critical factor which kept the Danforth ruling from being applicable to the Unborn Children Act. Though the Missouri statute was invalidated (because it required spousal or one parent's consent to an abortion), the Massachusetts statute left an alternative means of redress in which a pregnant minor could seek an independent decision by a superior court. In part, echoing his objections in Danforth, Justice White summed up the dissenting opinion by noting that he could not "imagine that the U.S. Constitution could forbid any parental consultation or even notice to parents if their minor child has filed proceedings of this sort before the court."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Bellotti v. Baird - Significance, Impact