Mo. Judge Rules Parents Can Sue in Some Abortion Cases

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A state judge on Thursday ruled that a law that allows parents to sue people who help their daughters get abortions without their consent is constitutional.

But Jackson County Circuit Judge Charles Atwell issued an injunction against enforcing the law pending an expected appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court. Atwell also ruled that no one could be investigated or disciplined for possibly violating the law until the higher court's ruling.

Atwell issued a temporary restraining order against the law in October after Planned Parenthood sued to block it. He said at the time that the law likely violated constitutional rights to free speech and due process and could cause irreparable harm to Planned Parenthood and its patients.

The center of the debate is language in the law that allows parents to sue anyone who "intentionally cause, aid or assist" their minor daughters in getting abortions without their consent.

Planned Parenthood had argued that passage could be widely interpreted to prohibit offering any advice to a pregnant minor, even if she did not get an abortion.

Assistant Attorney General Vickie Mahon had argued in a hearing before Atwell in October that the law might raise concerns about First Amendment rights only if someone provided information on crossing state lines to obtain an abortion elsewhere.

After denying Planned Parenthood's motions to dismiss the case for lack of standing and to declare it unconstitutional, Atwell said the "heart and soul of the case" was freedom of speech. The judge also said the law has "a real potential of reaching clearly protected speech."

Atwell ruled Thursday that providing information on reproductive rights and options to minors would be protected speech. In a written ruling, he said given his narrowing construction of the language's meaning, he found "with substantial trepidation" that the law is constitutional.

Gov. Matt Blunt said in a written statement that he was pleased with the ruling and had been confident it would withstand constitutional scrutiny and reduce the number of abortions in Missouri.

"I am pleased this ruling reaffirms the value Missourians and I place on human life and protecting our most vulnerable citizens," Blunt said. "I expect the Attorney General to vigorously defend the law during the inevitable appeals."

Missourians under 18 have long been required to obtain consent of a parent, guardian or court before getting an abortion. When they passed the law, legislators said the new civil liability provisions were aimed at people who help teenagers get abortions in Illinois, which has no parental consent law.

The legislation also requires physicians who provide abortions to have clinical privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. That provision went into effect after the closure of a Springfield clinic that had challenged it in federal court.