SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Supreme Court ended a lengthy and emotionally charged legal appeal over an abortion notification law Thursday, clearing the way for the state to begin enforcing a 1995 measure that requires doctors to notify a girl's parents 48 hours before the procedure.
The court ruled unanimously to uphold a circuit court's earlier dismissal of a challenge to the law that was filed by a Granite City women's health clinic and a doctor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
After court battles that lasted nearly two decades, Illinois now joins 38 other states in requiring some level of parental notification. The law goes into effect in 35 days unless it's appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has found such laws to be constitutional elsewhere.
Opponents of the notification law had argued that it violated privacy and gender equality rights because young women should be able to make their own decisions about their bodies and pregnancies. Supporters of the law, which was defended by the Illinois Attorney General's office, argued that parents would be deprived of basic rights if they were not notified of a daughter's decision to have an abortion.
Anti-abortion activists have long said Illinois was a haven for teens from states with stricter laws on the books seeking abortions.
"If you look at the map, from Canada to Mexico, we were the only state (in the Midwest) that did not have parental notification," said Peter Breen, a lawyer for the Thomas More Society, which defended the law in court.
In its opinion, the state's high court found that the law did not violate principles of due process or equal protection and noted how the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld such laws.
"We find that, while a minor clearly has an expectation of privacy in her medical information, which includes the fact of her pregnancy, the intrusion on the minor's privacy occasioned by the Act is not unreasonable," wrote Justice Anne Burke. "The state has an interest in ensuring that a minor is sufficiently mature and well-informed to make the difficult decision whether to have an abortion."
The Parental Notice of Abortion Act requires doctors of girls 17 and younger to notify a parent 48 hours before an abortion. Parents must sign a form acknowledging they've been notified, and the form becomes a permanent part of the girl's medical record. A young woman can get a waiver if a judge says notification is against her best interest, including in cases of sexual abuse.
Lawyers for the ACLU, who argued the clinic's case, said they are discussing any possibility of further challenges to the law. Abortion providers, though, said they would begin focusing on how to comply with the law within the next five weeks.
"That's pretty fast," said Pam Sutherland, vice president of Planned Parenthood in Illinois. "It is going to take us some time to make sure we have all the documentation prepared and ready, to indicate that we are following the law."
Enforcement of the law will fall to the state medical licensing board and the clerks of the court.
In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, 37,922 Illinois residents had abortions, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Slightly more than 16 percent of those women were 17 or under.
The ACLU pledged to keep the battle alive even if the notification law goes into effect.
"We will never stop looking for ways to keep this law from being enforced," said Lori Chaiten, the ACLU's director of reproductive rights, who argued the case. "(But) our immediate goal is preparing providers and teen health clinics to deal with compliance and help young women who need to go to court with a (waiver) to get to us so we can get them in touch with a pro-bono lawyer that can help."
A woman who answered the phone at The Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City said Thursday that the staff was "disappointed," but referred all other comment to ACLU's lawyers.
Anti-abortion activists celebrated the decision, saying parents have the right to know and be involved when children get abortions. The Catholic Conference of Illinois, which is the lobbying arm for the Archdiocese of Chicago, noted in a statement that parents could now "breathe a sigh of relief."
Natalie Bauer, spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said Madigan's office was not surprised with the court's ruling as a vast majority of states have some form of parental involvement law. Officials at Madigan's office also said that the lifespan of this litigation has far surpassed most of the other cases they handle.
The law was a key part of Republicans' legislative agenda when they briefly controlled state government in the mid-1990s.
But it was never enforced in Illinois because of a long string of court challenges. A 10-year federal injunction between 1996 and 2006 took up most of that stretch.
The law left it up to the state Supreme Court to draft rules about how teens could get waivers from a judge and appeal rulings, and the court didn't set those rules until 2006,
Additional lawsuits held up the law's implementation again. The ACLU sued on behalf of the clinic in 2009 to block the law's implementation after a decision by the U.S. Appeals Court permitted it to take effect earlier that year.