CONCORD, N.H. – To some, a never-enforced New Hampshire law requiring parental notification before a minor has an abortion is a backward step for women's rights. To others, it protects parents' right to know if their child is having an abortion.
The U.S. Supreme Court will consider those arguments Wednesday as it begins to weigh whether to reinstate a law that requires parental notification 48 hours before an abortion can be performed on a minor.
The 2003 law was struck down, days before it was to take effect, for failing to provide an exception to protect a minor's health. Under the law, parents or guardians must be notified either in person or by certified mail.
Supporters of the law say a provision that allows a girl to go to a judge instead of a parent provides needed protection if her health is in danger.
Opponents, however, say the law's requirements could lead to dangerous delays and result in judges making medical decisions instead of doctors. They also view the law as an ill-disguised attempt by abortion opponents to chip away at Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion.
"Women are going to get abortions no matter what, whether it's legal or illegal, whether they're 13 or whether they're 50. ... Any limitations put on it is heading backward in time," said Becca Pawling, 35, who leads Annie's Forum, a weekly program that brings together teenage girls and older women for snacks, support, crafts and conversation in Portsmouth.
The issue sparked a lively debate among the eight women at one recent meeting. One teen said she would tell her father but she'd more likely to turn to an older sibling for support. Another said she might tell her parents, but afterward.
Some older participants said they would support requiring girls to get some kind of adult counseling before getting abortions, but not necessarily from parents.
"I don't think I agree with the legislation, but I don't like the idea of young girls having to go through this by themselves," said Emily Morgan. "I'm 27 and I don't know if I could handle it."
Nearly all states have laws requiring some kind of parental involvement when minors have abortions. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that researches reproductive health issues, 21 states require parental consent and 13 require parental notification. Nine other states, including New Hampshire, have laws that aren't in effect because they've been blocked by court orders.
In its last major abortion decision, the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that state abortion laws must provide an exception to protect a girl's health in case her parents don't agree. It passed up several other abortion cases this year before agreeing in May to take up New Hampshire's law. Some legal experts suggested the surprising decision was the court's way of reminding President Bush what could be at stake in filling a Supreme Court vacancy.
It's unclear how many women would be affected by New Hampshire's law because the state's abortion providers, unlike those in almost every other state, do not submit annual statistics to the federal government. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which sued to block the law, said it performed 550 abortions in New Hampshire in 2004. Fifty-two were on girls.
Teens also are divided on the issue. Molly Cummings, 17, of Nashua, said she wasn't aware of the law and thought abortions were illegal for teenagers. Despite having a close relationship with her parents, she doubted she would tell them if she ended up pregnant and had an abortion.
"I don't think I'd be able to tell my parents," she said. "They'd be disappointed in me."
Jess Henderson, 17, of Concord, said she thinks the law is reasonable and might make teens think more about the consequences of their actions.
"There are a lot of people who look on abortion pretty lightly," she said.