Pennsylvania Court Rules on Rubber Stamp Teen Abortions

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 26, 2011   |   2:36PM   |   Harrisburg, PA

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued a decision clarifying how minor girls can obtain a judicial bypass allowing them to go around the state’s parental involvement law to get an abortion without their parents’ knowledge.

Pro-life advocates have been concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court-mandated bypass provision has become a rubber stamp process by which courts allow virtually any teenager seeking to not inform their parents to get an abortion without them knowing — as opposed to the law’s intent, which is to allow that bypass only in cases when teenagers are genuinely concerned about physical abuse if their parents find out about the pregnancy.

The state Supreme Court ruled late last week that a 17-year-old’s decision not to ask her mother’s permission for an abortion was not a valid reason for Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Philip Ignelzi to deny her an abortion in March 2010. The 6-1 ruling was the first the state high court has made concerning the state’s abortion law allowing a judge to determine if a teen seeking an abortion is “mature and capable of giving informed consent.”

Although the court ruled the judge did not properly deny the girl’s request for an abortion in the specific case, Randall Wenger, an attorney who represented pro-life groups Pennsylvania Family Institute and Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, told the Pittsburgh newspaper he thinks the ruling is still helpful.

“I think the court left the door open. They’re saying there are other factors that go into this — that it’s not just a rubber stamp,” he said.

“I think there’s been a general assumption that you have to grant judicial bypass,” he said. “Clearly the Legislature had in mind that there would be a real hearing on maturity. The (Supreme Court) gave a limitation, but it said there is room for trial courts to make their own decision.”

This is the first-ever review of the pro-life law by the state’s highest court and it received legal support from pro-life groups and state legislators  who support the law protecting a parent’s right to be involved in their child’s decision regarding abortion.

The Pennsylvania law and others like it have already been upheld at the U.S. Supreme Court and pro-life groups argue that a Pennsylvania trial court judge applied the correct legal standard and legitimately exercised his legal authority under the statute when he rejected a minor girl’s request for a secret abortion, stating that she needed consent from at least one of her parents.

The girl in the lawsuit, In re: Jane Doe, sought a judicial bypass that would have hidden the abortion from her parents. A Pennsylvania trial court judge denied that bypass. Ultimately, in this case, at least one parent of the girl consented to the abortion of their grandchild. While the law allows for a bypass in certain circumstances, it does not require rubber-stamp approval of every petition. The brief argues that a judge should have the freedom to carefully weigh the evidence and exercise proper discretion in allowing the parents a role in the abortion decision.

“If a teenage needs a parent’s permission before getting her ears pierced, certainly she should need parental consent before obtaining an abortion,” said Michael Ciccocioppo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation told “The legislature intended that parents have a right and a duty to be involved in a matter as grave as a teenager getting an abortion.”

“We believe that the judicial bypass was used in this case precisely the way the legislature intended,” Ciccocioppo added.  “The judicial bypass was never meant to be a rubber-stamp for abortion.  There is clearly no automatic right to judicial bypass in all cases.”

Ciccocioppo says an abortion can have profound repercussions for a girl, including serious physical and psychological complications, some of which may last a lifetime.  The friend-of-the-court brief details study after study showing the damage done by abortion.

Attorneys for the girl in question say the appeals court should have weighed her maturity and ability to consent for the abortion rather than just studying the legal process the judge used to deny the teen’s abortion.

Jennifer Boulanger, executive director of the Allentown Women’s Center, told the Trentonian newspaper that she was surprised the judge rejected the abortion request.

“That court is taking that minor’s life into its own hands,” Boulanger said. “She is going to be the one raising that child. It’s not only going to affect the minor, it’s going to affect the minor’s family and it is going to affect the child that she has.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed legal papers in the case arguing the appeals court should have ensured the lower court decision was backed up by proper evidence and said the state law does not set forth guidelines for when the minor girl is supposedly mature enough to get an abortion.

Officials with the Alliance Defense Fund and Americans United for Life submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court supporting the law.

“Parents should have a right to be involved in their child’s critical life-changing decisions, and that includes abortions,” ADF Legal Counsel Matt Bowman told previously. “Secret abortions performed on minors leave children in the hands of a predatory abortion industry that has put profits above parents’ rights and the health and safety of young girls and their preborn children.”