What's at Stake in Ayotte

| Thu Dec. 1, 2005 9:38 PM EST

Okay, it's the height of redundancy to quote in full the top New York Times editorial from yesterday, but Gail Collins and crew perfectly described the stakes in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood, the abortion case being heard before the Supreme Court right now, and it's worth repeating:

The substantive issue first: The Supreme Court has ruled that states can require that doctors notify a pregnant teenager's parent before performing an abortion. But the court has also made it clear, beginning with its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, that any restrictions on abortion rights must contain exceptions to protect a woman's health and life. This is a core principle that New Hampshire lawmakers ignored in 2003 when they passed a parental notification law that omitted any exception for medical problems that were not life-threatening.

Quite predictably, the law was challenged. Two days before it was to take effect, a federal trial judge in New Hampshire issued an injunction barring its enforcement. Neither the trial judge nor the reviewing appellate court had any trouble dismissing the claim by New Hampshire's attorney general, Kelly Ayotte, that the state had covered the problem of the health exception by giving a pregnant minor the option of seeking permission for an abortion from a judge. Neither should the justices. In an emergency, as Planned Parenthood of Northern New England notes in its brief, a young woman needs to get to a hospital, not a courthouse.

The implications of the procedural issue are even more serious. With support from the Justice Department, Ms. Ayotte is asking the court to end, or severely constrict, the longstanding power of federal courts to do what the trial judge in New Hampshire did: bar the enforcement of potentially dangerous and unconstitutional abortion restrictions before they go into effect and injure people. Though it is obscured by technical-sounding legalese, this issue concerns what would essentially be a radical court-stripping plan, one that would leave state legislatures free to ignore the Supreme Court's parameters for abortion regulation until a minor, already unconstitutionally endangered and in the midst of a medical crisis, somehow made it to court to challenge the law.Basically, the Supreme Court could conceivably vote to neuter Roe completely. As best I can tell, it's very, very hard to see how this will be decided. Sandra Day O'Connor, a somewhat pro-choice vote, is still on the court and her vote will only count if she's still there when the case is handed down—that is, if Alito's nomination is held up for whatever reason. (A filibuster, perhaps; hint, hint.) Jack Balkin and Lyle Denniston get into the complex procedural issues here, if you're interested. But it's extremely uncertain how this case will turn out. Also read Dahlia Lithwick, who's covering the hearings: from her account, it doesn't sound like the justices are very sympathetic to Planned Parenthood.