Alaska high court OKs abortion initiative as-is

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2010

ANCHORAGE - The state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that an initiative requiring parental notification for minors seeking an abortion will be on the August primary ballot.

Planned Parenthood had argued that more than 36,000 voters who signed the initiative petition failed to receive key information on sign-up sheets, for example that physicians could be charged and imprisoned if they failed to properly inform a parent.

The measure's ballot summary reads: "Abortion for Minor Requires Notice to or Consent from Parent or Guardian or Through Judicial Bypass."

In March of this year, the Superior Court found that the summary was misleading because it omitted three pieces of information, most significantly that a doctor who failed to give the required notice to parents before performing an abortion on a minor could be charged with a felony.

Attorneys for the initiative sponsors and the state argued that flaws in the written summary on the ballot sign-up sheets were minor and could be corrected on the ballot.

The state's highest court agreed, ruling that any ballot deficiencies weren't enough to make initiative sponsors begin the process anew.

Attorney General Dan Sullivan called the Supreme Court's ruling "balanced," and said the court concluded that few people who signed the petitions would have declined to do so if the information had not been omitted.

Lt. Gov. Craig E. Campbell said that the Alaska Supreme Court's ruling preserves a fundamental interest of the people.

"The initiative process is very important to Alaskans because it provides the opportunity for citizens to vote directly on matters that have not been addressed by the Legislature or that have not been addressed to the satisfaction of a significant number of voters. The Supreme Court has maintained its long-held position that initiatives will be preserved whenever possible," Campbell said.

But both the Alaska Supreme Court and the lower court had found the language in the ballot booklet misleading, Mittman said. Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner ordered state officials to write an accurate summary for the ballot.

"Obviously, we are disappointed with the court's decision," said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.

The sponsors of the initiative include former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman and Kim Hummer-Minnery, whose husband is president of the Christian anti-abortion group Alaska Family Council. Neither immediately returned phone messages left at their homes.

Rhiannon Good, campaign manager of NO on 2 - Alaskans Against Government Mandates, said the initiative is a bad way to handle the problem of teenage pregnancy.

"The government simply cannot mandate family communication because it does not work," she said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she was disappointed that it had been approved for the ballot.

"I think this whole thing is misbegotten, and I hope people will turn out and vote against it," she said.

Kerttula, who also serves as House Democratic Leader, said the measure was "government intrusion in young women's lives."

Young women in strong families will already involve their parents in such decisions, she said, but in some cases there is abuse in the families, including sexual abuse which can result in the pregnancy.

"In particular in rural areas, where everyone knows everyone and judges aren't available, this becomes a real nightmare for children who have been abused," she said.

Under the proposed language, physicians must personally call parents up to five times in two-hour increments during a 24-hour period, or verify with two pieces of identification that the guardians are who they claim to be.

Physicians could face penalties up of to five years in prison if they did not follow the law.

In 2007, the state Supreme Court struck down the Parental Consent Act, which prohibited doctors from performing an abortion on an unmarried girl younger than 17 without parental consent or judicial authorization.

The court found the statute violated a minor's constitutional right to privacy. It determined, however, that the Alaska Constitution would permit a statutory scheme ensuring that parents are notified.

The Supreme Court's ruling comes largely from only two of the five justices, Dana Fabe and Craig Stowers. Justice Dan Winfree joined in part, but said the court did not have the right to place a flawed measure on the ballot when it failed to meet the legal standard for a ballot summary.

Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti and Justice Morgan Kristen did not participate.

• The Juneau Empire contributed to this story.

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