Judge Rules State Can’t Defend New Abortion Law

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — The Montana attorney general’s office can’t defend a new state law requiring girls under 18 to receive their parents’ permission before seeking an abortion because another judge ruled the matter unconstitutional 15 years ago, a Helena judge ruled.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled Friday the state is barred from arguing that the new law justifies infringing the constitutional rights of a minor seeking an abortion.

The Legislature passed the bill in 2013, several months after nearly 70 percent of the state’s voters approved a ballot measure requiring parental notification prior to an abortion for a girl under 16.

The bill had the effect of repealing the ballot measure, and backers said it made clear that parents want to be involved in the decision to have an abortion.

Planned Parenthood of Montana sued to have the new law ruled unconstitutional. Sherlock had blocked the law from taking effect pending his ruling.

Sherlock said the issue already has been decided. In 1999, Judge Dorothy McCarter ruled that requiring minors to notify their parents before an abortion violated their constitutional rights to privacy and equal protection.

The Montana Supreme Court has ruled against reopening an identical issue already decided upon if it involves the same parties and they already had a full and fair opportunity to present their case to a judge, Sherlock said in his ruling.

The question in this case is whether parents’ interests are so compelling that they can be allowed to infringe upon a minor’s constitutional rights — the very issue that McCarter already decided, Sherlock said. “That question has already been answered,” he said.

Planned Parenthood of Montana President and CEO Martha Stahl called the ruling a victory, especially for those teens who live in dangerous homes and can’t go to their parents.

“These laws are not only bad health policy, but also clear violations of young Montana women’s constitutional rights,” Stahl said in a statement Tuesday.

The attorney general’s office can appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Attorney General Tim Fox said he plans to do so, because “70 percent of voters believe parents should be involved in their children’s life-changing decisions,” spokesman John Barnes said.

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