Lambert v. Wicklund, 520 U.S. 292 (1997)

Lambert v. Wicklund is one of a long line of abortion cases handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the historic case of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court determined that a woman has a right to an abortion, subject to some limitations. The question remained, however, as to whether a minor had the same right to an abortion as an adult woman. In Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, the Court recognized that a minor has a right to an abortion, but that the right is subject to more limitations than the right of an adult woman. The question remained as to what form these additional limitations could take. The case of Ohio v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health provided a partial answer. There the Court upheld as constitutional an Ohio statute that required a minor to notify one of her parents before obtaining an abortion. However, a minor could avoid the notification requirement through use of the statute’s judicial bypass provision, which allowed the minor to petition a Court to waive the notice requirement.

The Lambert case at issue here continues to examine the question of which limitations on a minor’s right to an abortion are permissible. The Lambert case originated in Montana, where, in 1995, the legislature enacted the Parental Notification of Abortion Act. Among other things, this statute required that, before performing an abortion on a minor, a physician notify one of her parents of the physician’s intention. However, a minor could avoid the notification requirement if she could demonstrate to the Court that ‘‘the notification of a parent or guardian is not in the best interests of the [minor].’’ After its enactment, many persons found the statute to be objectionable. Consequently, some physicians who performed abortions, along with other medical personnel, sued to prevent enforcement of the act on the grounds that it violated the Constitution. In particular, they claimed that it violated a minor’s right to an abortion.

In an opinion in which there were no dissenting justices, the Court found that, contrary to the contentions of the physicians and medical personnel, Montana’s limitation on a minor’s right to an abortion was permissible. It explained that Montana’s statute was indistinguishable in any relevant way from the Ohio statute that the Court had upheld in the Akron case. Specifically, both statutes allow a minor to avoid the notification requirement if she can demonstrate that such notification is not in her best interests. Because the Court had previously found the Ohio statute to be permissible, by definition, the Montana statute was permissible.

Thus, the Court continued to uphold a minor’s right to an abortion, subject to at least one limitation that would not have been permissible if it had been applied to an adult. Although the Court has found this one limitation to be permissible, a parental notification requirement with a bypass procedure, it has yet to determine the tougher question of whether a parental notification statute must include some sort of bypass provision to be constitutional.

JANET W. STEVERSON

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Ohio v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, 497 U.S. 502 (1990)
  • Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976)
  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

See also Planned Parenthood of Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976); Reproductive Freedom; Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

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