H.L. v. Matheson, 450 U.S. 398 (1981)

2012-07-09 10:00:05

Following the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) that pregnant women enjoyed a personal liberty under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to terminate their pregnancies, five states, including Utah, enacted laws to discourage minors from exercising this right. Reasoning that if parents knew that their teenage daughter was pregnant they might dissuade them from aborting the pregnancy, these states required the attending physician to notify the girl’s parents and wait a specified period of time before performing the procedure. In H. L. v. Matheson the Supreme Court found no constitutional barriers to enactment of parental notification statutes as long as the parents were not given a veto over the abortion.

H. L. was an unmarried 15-year-old girl living with her parents in Utah and dependent on them for support. After discovering that she was pregnant, she consulted with a social worker and a physician, who advised her that ending her pregnancy was in her best interest. A Utah statute required the attending physician to notify the parents of a pregnant minor seeking an abortion ‘‘if possible.’’ Because of the law, the physician declined to perform the abortion until he had notified H. L.’s parents. For reasons that she did not reveal, she said that it was not in her best interest for the parents to know and filed a suit in a state trial court claiming that the parental notification statute violated the federal constitution. The law contained no judicial bypass, whereby the physician could notify a judge instead of the parents.

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that in Bellotti v. Baird (1979) it had ruled that a state cannot give parents a veto over a child’s abortion decision. It also said that a statute that required parental notification in the case of a mature, emancipated minor seeking an abortion would violate the minor’s constitutional rights. This case, however, involved an immature minor, dependent on her parents. The statute requires only parental notification, not parental consent.

The Utah statute, said the Court, serves the important considerations of family integrity and protection of adolescents. The law also serves the state’s interest in ensuring that the attending physician has access to the patient’s full medical and psychological history, which the parents or the family physician, with authorization from the parents, are likely to be able to provide. Research indicates that abortion has an especially devastating effect on the mental health of adolescent girls.

It is reasonable, found the Court, for a state to require a physician to notify parents before performing an abortion while not requiring such notice when she gives birth to a child. In Maher v. Roe (1977), the Court held that states serve a legitimate interest, protecting potential human life, when they enact public policies favoring childbirth over abortion. In a subsequent case, Hodgson v. Minnesota (1990), the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states with parental notification requirements to include the option of notifying a judge instead when the best interests of the minor so necessitate.


References and Further Reading

  • Bridge, Burneatta, Parent versus Child: H.L. v. Matheson and the New Abortion Litigation, Wisconsin Law Review 1982 (1982): 1:75–116.
  • Feldman, H. N., H. L. v. Matheson: Where Does the Court Stand on Abortion and Parental Notification? American University Law Review 31 (1982): 2:431–69.
  • McCullough, Eric D., New Jersey Parental Notification for Abortion Act Violates State Constitutional Guarantee of Fundamental Right—Planned Parenthood of Central New Jersey v. Farmer, 762 A.2d 620 (N.J. 2000), Seton Hall Constitutional Law Journal 11 (2001): 495–528.
  • Solinger, Rickie. Abortion Wars: A Half Century of Struggle, 1950–2000. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622 (1979)
  • Hodgson v. Minnesota, 497 U.S. 417 (1990)
  • Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464 (1977)
  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

See also Abortion; Due Process of Law (V and XIV); Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464 (1977); Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)