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Young Women Seeking Abortion Care Get the Cold Shoulder in Alaska

Andrew Beck,
Senior Staff Attorney, Reproductive Freedom Project,
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September 8, 2011

For decades, teens in Alaska had been able to obtain abortions without the state ordering the involvement of their parents. In 1997, however, the Alaska legislature passed a law preventing young women from obtaining abortions without parental consent. The ACLU, together with Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights, sued the state, and in 2007, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the law violated the Alaska Constitution.

Fast-forward four years later and we’re back challenging a new law — the Parental Notification Law (PNL) — that forbids doctors from providing abortions to young women without notifying their parents. The fact is that most teens, in Alaska and elsewhere, inform their families when they face an unintended pregnancy. For some teens, however, this just isn’t an option: Some young women come from abusive families and would face physical abuse, emotional abuse, or the threat of being thrown out of the house if a parent found out that they were pregnant and seeking an abortion.

The PNL exposes the most vulnerable young women to the greatest risks, and its provisions addressing abused teens and other young women who cannot inform their families about a pregnancy are absolutely insufficient to address those risks. The law is extremely problematic — and unconstitutional — for a number of other reasons as well. For instance, Alaska law prohibits laws that treat similarly situated men and women differently, but the PNL does just that by placing restrictions on reproductive health care services obtained only by women. Likewise, the PNL contains a totally inadequate medical emergency exception that will expose young women with serious medical needs to unnecessary risk and delay. The law is also written in such vague and confusing terms that it fails to give physicians sufficient guidance about what they must do. Doctors must literally guess at how to comply with the PNL, and they face criminal prosecution if they guess wrong.

Despite this obvious unconstitutionality and risk to teens’ well-being, the defendants have asked an Alaska state court to uphold the PNL. The court will hear arguments on these issues today. For the sake of young women in Alaska, let’s hope that the court denies the defendants’ request.

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