Supreme Court Affirms Va. Abortion Law
By R.H. Melton
RICHMOND, Feb. 22 The U.S. Supreme Court today let stand Virginia's 20-month-old law requiring girls under 18 to notify a parent before having an abortion.
The decision cheered Virginians who favor more stringent abortion regulations, while advocates of abortion rights said it was too early to judge the full effect of the statute.
The Supreme Court offered no comment in declining to review the ruling of the federal appeals court here that upheld the 1997 law as constitutional. The Supreme Court takes up fewer than 5 percent of the appeals it receives. A decision not to take a case does not foreclose the court from taking up the issue in a related case in the future.
In Virginia, as in other states, the parental notice requirement was the focus of protracted political and legal struggles and was a major component of a broad social agenda among conservatives around the Old Dominion. More than 20 other states have similar statutes; Maryland's parental involvement law is slightly less restrictive.
The high court decision "confirms what we have always stated, that Virginia's parental notification law is constitutional and that parents have a right to know when their minor is undergoing a surgical procedure as serious as abortion," said Louise D. Hartz, president of the state affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee.
State government officials maintain annual data on the number of Virginians who have an abortion, and the numbers remained generally constant in 1996 and 1997, the two most recent years for which complete figures were available.
For instance, in 1996, 25,752 Virginia residents, including 5,331 age 19 or younger, had an abortion; a year later, when the notice law took effect on July 1, there were 25,875 abortions, 5,125 in the 11-to-19 age group, the state reported.
Ron Hyman, who directs the state's Center for Health Statistics, said preliminary data indicate a slight increase in the number of abortions in Northern Virginia in 1998, but that, he added, may only be a function of early reporting by clinics and doctors in that region.
Additionally, some neighboring states, such as Tennessee, Maryland and the District exchange very little data about abortions performed there, so "we have no way of knowing whether someone crossed the 14th Street Bridge or not," to have an abortion, Hyman said.
Brenda J. Davis, the acting director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, said it was "too soon to look at a cause and effect" in the data, adding that the actual number of minors affected is "very small."
Nationally, the overall rate of abortions is declining, Davis said.
Last year, independent surveys of the data that Virginia clinics must report to the state suggested a dip in the number of teenage abortions. In the latter part of 1997, for example, one study showed a 20 percent decline in abortions for girls 17 and younger.
Attorney General Mark L. Earley (R), who for years as a state senator was the lead sponsor of notice legislation, complained today that the law "has been under constant challenge by those who wish to undermine the will of the people of Virginia by using the court system."
Earley said the Supreme Court action "ensures Virginia's parents have the right and responsibility to be informed."
The Virginia law grants an exception from parental notice to abused children and in cases in which a girl could risk "substantial physical injury" by continuing her pregnancy.
The statute also gives a judge discretion about whether to grant an abortion request from a girl who convinces the judge that she is mature enough to decide on her own.
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