BELLOTTI V. BAIRD, 428 U. S. 132 (1976)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132 (1976)

Bellotti v. Baird

No. 75-73

Argued March 23, 1976

Decided July 1, 1976*

428 U.S. 132


A 1974 Massachusetts statute governs the type of consent, including parental consent, required before an abortion may be performed on an unmarried woman under the age of 18. Appellees, an abortion counseling organization, its president and its medical director, and several unmarried women who were pregnant at the time, brought a class action against appellant Attorney General and District Attorneys, claiming that the statute violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. A temporary restraining order was entered prior to the effective date of the statute. Thereafter, a three-judge District Court held the statute unconstitutional as creating a "parental veto" over the performance of abortions on minor children in that it applied even to those minors capable of giving informed consent, and permanently enjoined its operation, denying by implication appellants' motion that the court abstain from deciding the issue pending authoritative construction of the statute by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In 1975, after the District Court's decision Massachusetts enacted a statute dealing with consent by minors to medical procedures other than abortion and sterilization, and, in this Court, appellees raised an additional claim of impermissible distinction between the consent procedures applicable to minors in the area of abortion under the 1974 statute and the consent required by the 1975 statute in regard to other medical procedures.

Held: The District Court should have abstained from deciding the constitutional issue, and should have certified to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court appropriate questions concerning the meaning of the 1974 statute and the procedure it imposes. Pp. 428 U. S. 143-152.

(a) Abstention is appropriate where an unconstrued state statute is susceptible of a construction by the state judiciary that chanrobles.com-red

Page 428 U. S. 133

"might avoid, in hole or in part, the necessity for federal constitutional adjudication, or at least materially change the nature of the problem."

Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U. S. 167, 360 U. S. 177. Pp. 428 U. S. 146-147.

(b) Here, the 1974 statute is susceptible of appellants' interpretation that, while it prefers parental consultation and consent, it permits a minor capable of giving informed consent to obtain a court order allowing abortion without parental consultation, and further permits even a minor incapable of giving informed consent to obtain an abortion order without parental consultation where it is shown that abortion would be in her best interests, and such an interpretation would avoid or substantially modify the federal constitutional challenge to the statute. Pp. 428 U. S. 147-148.

(c) In regard to the claim of impermissible discrimination due to the 1975 statute, it would be appropriate for the District Court also to certify a question concerning this statute, and the extent to which its procedures differ from the procedures required under the 1974 statute. Pp. 428 U. S. 151-152.

393 F.Supp. 847, vacated and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.


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