New Jersey’s bid to pass a law to require pregnant teenagers from obtaining an abortion unless their parents were notified was a big issue in state politics two decades ago and ended with the intervention of the courts.
This was the first time the New Jersey Legislature had taken up bills regarding abortion since 1982, when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that abortion restrictions infringed on women’s right to control their bodies, but that opinion also acknowledged abortion as an issue “assumed a new dimension” after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
At the time, the state had a Republican governor, Christine Todd Whitman, and majorities in both houses of the legislature. Whitman was strongly pro-choice and an opponent of abortion restrictions, but a rising star in national GOP politics. At the time, she was the likely Republican nominee for the open U.S. Senate seat created by Frank Lautenberg’s retirement.
After a debate that lasted about an hour, the New Jersey State Assembly voted 59-17 to pass a parental notification bill on June 10, 1999.
Of the original sponsors of the bill, only one remains in the legislature: State Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Old Bridge), who was an assemblyman at the time. Only one Democrat was listed as a sponsor: Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D-Edison).
Two weeks later, the State Senate passed the same bill 30-8. The same day, the Assembly approved an amended version, 59-18. Whitman signed the bill four days after that.
On September 23, just five days before the law was due to take effect, Superior Court Judge Marguerite Simon rejected a bid to stop the new law. Two days later, Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein, a Republican nominated by Gov. Thomas Kean, blocked the parental notification bill from taking effect.
In a 4-2 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court struck down the new law on August 15, 2000, declaring it unconstitutional. The court ruled that the law would have discriminated against young women based on whether they wanted to abort their pregnancy or carry them to term.
The decision found that “”the State may not affirmatively tip the scales against the right to choose an abortion absent compelling reasons.”
Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, who wrote the majority opinion, was joined by James Coleman, Virginia Long, and Stein. All but Long were Republicans.
The two dissenters, Daniel O’Hern and Peter Verniero, argued that the law did not affect a right to have an abortion. O’Hern was a former Democratic mayor of Red Bank. Verniero, a former executive director of the Republican State Committee, had followed Poritz as Whitman’s attorney general.
Supporters of the law in the legislature, led by Assembly Speaker Jack Collins, moved to amend the State Constitution to permit laws that would require parental consent for any medical treatment, including drug addiction.
Just before Thanksgiving, the Assembly voted 44-14 to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to decide.
The Senate didn’t approve the proposed amendment until June 2001 and only did so by a narrow 21-15 majority.
Since neither house approved the amendment by a super-majority, the bill had to be passed again in 2002 to get on the ballot.
The election of a Democratic governor, James E. McGreevey, a Democratic majority in the State Assembly, and a Senate where each party held 20 seats prevented the measure from ever appearing on the ballot.