Bellotti v. Baird II

443 U.S. 622 (1979)
Download Judgment: English

The Appellants challenged the constitutional validity of a Massachusetts law that required, in every instance, that the parents or guardian of a minor seeking an abortion be notified. The joined Appellants were an abortion clinic and a pregnant minor representing the class of unmarried minors in Massachusetts who had adequate capacity to give valid and informed consent to abortion, but who did not wish to involve their parents.

For an abortion to be performed, Section 12S of the Massachusetts law stated that:

  • If the pregnant minor was unmarried and less than eighteen years old, the consent of both her and her parents was required;
  • If one or both of the mother’s parents refused such consent, consent could be obtained by order of a judge of the superior court for good cause shown, after any hearing deemed necessary;
  • If one of the parents had died or had deserted his or her family, consent by the remaining parent was sufficient;
  • If both parents had died or had deserted their family, consent of the pregnant minor’s guardian or other person having duties similar to a guardian, or any person who had assumed the care and custody of the mother was sufficient. 

Physicians who performed abortions in the absence of such consent were subject to injunctions and criminal penalties.

The District Court declared the provision unconstitutional and permanently enjoined its enforcement.

The Court held a State’s decision to require a pregnant minor to obtain parental consent did not unduly burden a minor’s right to seek an abortion, so long as the State also provided an alternative procedure through which authorisation for the abortion could be obtained. It held that “every pregnant minor [was] entitled, in the first instance, to go directly to the court for a judicial determination [of her maturity or best interests] without prior parental notice.”

The Court explained that “parental notice and consent are qualifications that typically may be imposed by the State on a minor's right to make important decisions” because “immature minors often lack the ability to make fully informed choices that take account of both immediate and long-range consequences.”

The Court held, however, that the requirement of obtaining parental notification prior to court access, in every instance, was an unconstitutional burden on a minor’s right to seek an abortion. The Court declared that every pregnant “minor must have the opportunity . . . to go directly to a court without first consulting or notifying her parents.” The State-imposed condition upon initial access to court thus unduly burdened the constitutional right to seek an abortion.

The Court explained that, while it was not always the case, “many parents [have] strong views on the subject of abortion, and young pregnant minors, especially those living at home, [were] particularly vulnerable to their parents' efforts to obstruct both an abortion and their access to court.” Applying Planned Parenthood v Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976), it added that “the unique nature and consequences of the abortion decision” made it inappropriate "to give a third party an absolute, and possibly arbitrary, veto over the decision of the physician and his patient . . . regardless of the reason for withholding the consent."

The Court further held that it was unconstitutional to allow a judge to veto the abortion decision of a minor who was, in fact, mature and competent enough to give informed consent. Section 12S of the Act thus unconstitutionally permitted a judge to “disregard [] the abortion decision of a minor who had been determined to be mature and fully competent” by a court. In such proceedings, the Court explained that the minor must show either: “(1) that she is mature enough and well enough informed to make her abortion decision, in consultation with her physician, independently of her parents' wishes;” or “(2) that even if she is not able to make this decision independently, the desired abortion would be in her best interests.”

The Court held that a judicial bypass procedure must be conducted based upon the following standards in order to allow a minor obtain an abortion without parental notification or consent:

  1. The procedure must allow the minor to show that she possesses the maturity and information to make her abortion decision, in consultation with her physician, independently of her parents’ wishes;
  2. The procedure must allow the minor to show that, even if she cannot make the abortion decision by herself, the desired abortion would be in her best interests;
  3. The procedure must insure the minor's anonymity;
  4. Courts must conduct a bypass procedure with expedition to allow the minor an effective opportunity to obtain the abortion.

“The abortion decision differs in important ways from other decisions that may be made during minority. The need to preserve the constitutional right and the unique nature of the abortion decision, especially when made by a minor, require a State to act with particular sensitivity when it legislates to foster parental involvement in this matter.” 443 U.S., p. 642.

“[T]he potentially severe detriment facing a pregnant woman . . . is not mitigated by her minority. Indeed, considering her probable education, employment skills, financial resources, and emotional maturity, unwanted motherhood may be exceptionally burdensome for a minor. In addition, the fact of having a child brings with it adult legal responsibility, for parenthood, like attainment of the age of majority, is one of the traditional criteria for the termination of the legal disabilities of minority. In sum, there are few situations in which denying a minor the right to make an important decision will have consequences so grave and indelible.” 443 U.S., p. 642.

“[A]n abortion may not be the best choice for the minor. The circumstances in which this issue arises will vary widely. In a given case, alternatives to abortion, such as marriage to the father of the child, arranging for its adoption, or assuming the responsibilities of motherhood with the assured support of family, may be feasible and relevant to the minor's best interests. Nonetheless, the abortion decision is one that simply cannot be postponed, or it will be made by default with far-reaching consequences.” 443 U.S., pp. 642-43.

“Although it satisfies constitutional standards in large part, § 12S falls short of them in two respects: First, it permits judicial authorization for an abortion to be withheld from a minor who is found by the superior court to be mature and fully competent to make this decision independently. Second, it requires parental consultation or notification in every instance, without affording the pregnant minor an opportunity to receive an independent judicial determination that she is mature enough to consent or that an abortion would be in her best interests.  Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the District Court insofar as it invalidates this statute and enjoins its enforcement.”  443 U.S., p. 651.