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Bellotti v. Baird (1976)

In Depth


At issue was the 1974 Massachusetts "Act to protect unborn children and maternal health within present constitutional limitations."  The statute required parental consent for abortions where the mother was under the age of 18.  A Massachusetts organization that provided abortion and counseling services, and its president, William Baird, joined by several pregnant, unmarried minors, brought suit in federal district court against Francis Bellotti, the attorney general for Massachusetts.  The plaintiffs sought a declaration that the law was invalid.  A district court judge issued a temporary restraining order on the day the statute was to have taken effect, and a three-judge panel of the same court later declared the statute unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause.  Bellotti argued that the district court should have refused to decide the constitutional issue until the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had an opportunity to construe the statute.  He filed an appeal in the United States Supreme Court.

The Statute Under Review

The Act required an unmarried minor under the age of 18 to obtain the consent of her parents before undergoing an abortion.  If her parents declined, the minor could seek an order from a judge of the superior court permitting the abortion.

The law contained exceptions where one or both of the mother's parents were deceased or had deserted the family.  The Act also contained an exception for so-called "emergency" abortions.

Penalties for violating the Act included a fine of up to $2,000.

The Court's Holding

The Court reversed the judgment of the district court, concluding that it was inappropriate for the lower court to have considered the constitutional issue until Massachusetts' highest court had an opportunity to interpret the statute.

Justice Blackmun authored a unanimous opinion for the Court.

The Court's Reasoning

Abstention.  A district court generally should refrain from ruling on the constitutionality of a previously-unconstrued state law when the law at issue could be read by the state courts in a way that would render it constitutional.  See Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959).

Bellotti argued that (1) the Act did not create a "parental veto," but only allowed the parents the right to determine what was best for their child.  Over and above the parents' right, Bellotti asserted that the statute (2) preserved the minor's right to obtain consent from a court once it has deemed the minor capable of giving informed consent.  If all else failed, Bellotti argued, the statute (3) allowed the judge to authorize an abortion for a minor incapable of giving informed consent, where "good cause" was shown.

Baird countered by interpreting the Act to create a parental veto.  Indeed, the same day this case was decided, the Supreme Court struck down a Missouri statute that permitted a parent, in the Court's words, to exercise an absolute veto over a minor's decision whether to have an abortion.   Planned Parenthood of Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976).  As in that case, Baird argued that even if the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court were permitted to interpret this Act, it would inevitably come to the conclusion that it created such a veto.

Without deciding which of these two competing interpretations of the statute were correct, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abstention was appropriate because the statute at issue was susceptible to Bellotti's interpretation, and that such an interpretation would avoid or substantially modify the federal constitutional challenge to the statute.

The plaintiffs also argued that the parental consent statute was unconstitutional because it treated abortion differently than other medical procedures.  "[N]ot all distinction between abortion and other procedures is forbidden," the Court cautioned.  However, absent an authoritative interpretation of the statute from the State's highest court, the constitutional parameters of this particular question, like the question of the constitutionality of the consent requirement per se, could not yet be determined.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to the district court so that it could certify, to the State's Supreme Judicial Court, questions concerning the statute's meaning and operation.

See also Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622 (1979).

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