February 9, 2006

Supreme Court’s Decision in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England

On January 18, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a lower federal court had erred in striking down in its entirety a New Hampshire law requiring parental consent for minors seeking an abortion. The case, Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, involves a decision by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals to invalidate the state’s Parental Notification Prior to Abortion Act because it lacks a waiver provision for cases in which a woman’s health is at risk.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor did not question the circuit court’s determination of the need for a health exception. However, she did take issue with its decision to invalidate the entire statute, arguing that it was inappropriate to do so because only some aspects of the act raised constitutional concerns. The high court returned the case to the court of appeals with instructions to craft a narrower remedy.

The high court’s opinion, issued just seven weeks after oral argument on the case, surprised many observers, who had expected the justices to rehear the case once O’Connor’s successor, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., was sworn in. The decision has garnered attention not only for the ruling but also for the clues it might offer about the court’s likely consideration of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act later this year.