Parental notice law for teen abortions upheld

January 11, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau Staff writer John Fairhall contributed to this story.

WASHINGTON -- State judges gained broader power yesterday to deny abortions for pregnant teen-agers who live at home as the Supreme Court chose not to second-guess the way Ohio's parental notice law is enforced.

Without comment, the justices turned down the first appeal seeking specific constitutional guidance for judges as they make day-to-day rulings on teen-agers' abortion requests.

The justices' action yesterday on the Ohio teen abortion law was the second in recent years on that statute. In 1990, a divided court upheld the law, which requires teen-agers who want to have an abortion to notify a parent or guardian -- unless a state judge, standing in as a substitute legal counselor, agreed to allow an abortion.

But that ruling was based only on the way the law was written, not on how it would be enforced in actual cases. The court said then that it was assuming Ohio would carry out the law without denying teen-agers a genuine chance to prove a need for an abortion without getting a parent involved.

In the new appeal, abortion clinics and doctors contended that judges in the state have no guidelines to limit their decisions on pregnant teen-agers' rights, resulting in frequent refusal to let minors use a judicial bypass to parental notice.

The clinics were turned down by the Ohio Supreme Court when they asked for guidelines to assure that the court approach would give teen-agers a workable alternative when they could show they were mature enough to make the abortion decision themselves, or when leaving parents out of the choice would be in the teen-agers' interest. The state court split 4-3 in refusing to provide such guidance, saying that would be up to the legislature.

So the clinics and doctors went on to a federal court. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that federal courts have no power to oversee the enforcement of the Ohio law unless nearly every judge in the state was acting arbitrarily. Challenges would be heard in federal court, the Circuit Court said, only if the Ohio system were breaking down from a "systemic" failure.

Since the clinics and doctors were only complaining about specific cases where abortion requests were turned down, they had no right even to be in court, the Circuit Court said.

But the challengers told the Supreme Court that they were not trying to get the federal courts to sit in judgment of specific denials but that they were trying to bar enforcement of the law until judges' discretion was expressly limited.

Roger Evans, director of the Planned Parenthood Federation's legal action organization, said that the Ohio system is now functioning in a way that "juvenile court judges play both God and doctor." As an example, he cited a judge's denial of an abortion request after telling a pregnant teen-ager that she had "not yet had enough 'hard knocks.' "

NAFTA case rejected

In another unexplained order, the court chose to bypass a case testing the legality of the North American Free Trade Agreement -- a three-nation pact that President Clinton approved and Congress ratified. The challengers contend that the agreement poses too great a threat to the U.S. environment.

The court's refusal to consider the legal challenge to NAFTA led the group that had pursued it, Public Citizen, to vow merely to fight on, turning their efforts next toward a court fight against a proposed new trade pact relaxing global restrictions.

Medicare test case

The high court agreed to settle a dispute among lower federal courts about the right of hospitals to get Medicare reimbursements for the cost of training programs for interns and residences, when those costs formerly were borne by medical schools related to the hospitals.

While the case may affect $150 million in current reimbursement claims, the outcome apparently will have no impact on the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins hospitals, because the federal government has given Maryland permission to set hospital reimbursement rates -- including those for treating Medicare patients. The test case involves a Philadelphia hospital.

Citizenship ruling upheld

Justices left intact, without comment, a lower court ruling that resident aliens may be denied U.S. citizenship if they refuse to list all organizations to which they ever belonged. The government denied citizenship to a Palo Alto, Calif., man who is a native of Great Britain but has lived in the United States for 33 years. He refused, on principle, to name all of his organizational ties.

Ship inspection case

The high court agreed to clarify the legal duty of shipowners to inspect for unsafe conditions that cargo-loading companies might have created aboard their vessels.

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