Bellotti v. Baird,
443 U.S. 622 (1979)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622 (1979)

Bellotti v. Baird

No. 78-329

Argued February 27, 1979

Decided July 2, 1979*

443 U.S. 622


A Massachusetts statute requires parental consent before an abortion can be performed on an unmarried woman under the age of 18. If one or both parents refuse such consent, however, the abortion may be obtained by order of a judge of the superior court "for good cause shown." In appellees' class action challenging the constitutionality of the statute, a three-judge District Court held it unconstitutional. Subsequently, this Court vacated the District Court's judgment, Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U. S. 132, holding that the District Court should have abstained and certified to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court appropriate questions concerning the meaning of the statute. On remand, the District Court certified several questions to the Supreme Judicial Court. Among the questions certified was whether the statute permits any minors -- mature or immature -- to obtain judicial consent to an abortion without any parental consultation whatsoever. The Supreme Judicial Court answered that, in general, it does not; that consent must be obtained for every nonemergency abortion unless no parent is available; and that an available parent must be given notice of any judicial proceedings brought by a minor to obtain consent for an abortion. Another question certified was whether, if the superior court finds that the minor is capable of making, and has, in fact, made and adhered to, an informed and reasonable decision to have an abortion, the court may refuse its consent on a finding that a parent's, or its own, contrary decision is a better one. The Supreme Judicial Court answered in the affirmative. Following the Supreme Judicial Court's judgment, the District Court again declared the statute unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 443 U. S. 633-651; 443 U. S. 652-656.

450 F.Supp. 997, affirmed.


1. There are three reasons justifying the conclusion that the constitutional

Page 443 U. S. 623

rights of children cannot be equated with those of adults: the peculiar vulnerability of children; their inability to make critical decisions in an informed, mature manner; and the importance of the guiding role of parents in the upbringing of their children. Pp. 443 U. S. 633-639.

2. The abortion decision differs in important ways from other decisions facing minors, and the State is required to act with particular sensitivity when it legislates to foster parental involvement in this matter. Pp. 443 U. S. 639-642.

3. If a State decides to require a pregnant minor to obtain one or both parents' consent to an abortion, it also must provide an alternative procedure whereby authorization for the abortion can be obtained. A pregnant minor is entitled in such a proceeding to show either that she is mature enough and well enough informed to make her abortion decision, in consultation with her physician, independently of her parents' wishes, or that, even if she is not able to make this decision independently, the desired abortion would be in her best interests. Such a procedure must ensure that the provision requiring parental consent does not, in fact, amount to an impermissible "absolute, and possibly arbitrary, veto." Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U. S. 52, 428 U. S. 74. Pp. 443 U. S. 642-644.

4. The Massachusetts statute, as authoritatively interpreted by the Supreme Judicial Court, unduly burdens the right to seek an abortion. The statute falls short of constitutional standards in two respects. First, it permits judicial authorization for an abortion to be withheld from a minor who is found by the superior court to be mature and fully competent to make this decision independently. Second, it requires parental consultation or notification in every instance, whether or not in the pregnant minor's best interests, without affording her an opportunity to receive an independent judicial determination that she is mature enough to consent or that an abortion would be in her best interests. Pp. 443 U. S. 644-651.

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, joined by MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, and MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concluded that the Massachusetts statute is unconstitutional because under the statute, as written and as construed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, no minor, no matter how mature and capable of informed decisionmaking, may receive an abortion without the consent of either both parents or a superior court judge, thus making the minor's abortion decision subject in every instance to an absolute third-party veto. Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U. S. 52, controlling. Pp. 443 U. S. 652-656.

POWELL, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined.

Page 443 U. S. 624

REHNQUIST, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 443 U. S. 651. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 443 U. S. 652. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 443 U. S. 656.

Primary Holding

The Fourteenth Amendment voids a state law requiring an unmarried minor to get consent of both parents or a court order before proceeding with an abortion.


Massachusetts imposed a law that required parental consent before an unmarried woman under the age of 18 could get an abortion. If the parents withheld consent, however, pregnant teenagers were allowed to get an abortion by obtaining an order of a judge of the superior court for good cause. The law also imposed criminal penalties on doctors who performed abortions in violation of the law. An abortion clinic director, Baird, brought a claim in conjunction with a doctor who performed abortions and other medical professionals against the state attorney general, Bellotti. They argued that the law violated due process and equal protection, and the lower court agreed.



  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Potter Stewart
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

Greater care is needed when a state addresses the issue of abortion than when it addresses other issues concerning minors. The parental consent statute, while not invalid per se, should have contained an alternative way to get authorization for an abortion. The pregnant teenager should be allowed to show that she is capable of making an independent decision in conjunction with her physician's guidance or that an abortion would be in her best interests. Otherwise, the parental consent requirement could lead to an absolute and arbitrary prohibition.

The statute allows a court to prevent a minor from getting an abortion even if she is fully competent to make an independent decision. It also requires the parents to be notified in every situation, even if this may not be in the best interests of the child. The statute is unconstitutional for both of those reasons.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

The statute subjects the judgment of the pregnant teenager to a potential third-party veto in every situation, whether by the parents or by a court. This violates the child's privacy and autonomy rights.


  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)


  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

Case Commentary

The key interests that the decision sought to balance were the interests of the girl in ending the pregnancy and the interests of the parents in having control over the upbringing of their children.

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