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Associated Press, September 25, 2007

Clinic need not tell parents about emergency contraception

By MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press Writer


A city health clinic did not violate a 16-year-old's rights or those of her parents when it gave her emergency contraception without notifying the couple, a federal appeals court said.

The state is not obligated to encourage a minor to seek parental advice, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in the 47-page ruling. The judges noted that the girl went to the city-run health center voluntarily and could have called her parents before or during the visit.

"The Constitution does not impose an affirmative obligation on (the) defendants to ensure that children abide by their parents wishes, values, or religious beliefs," Judge Theodore A. McKee wrote in Friday's ruling.

The ruling appears to be a first among federal circuits involving teen access to the morning-after pill at public health centers, lawyers on both sides said. However, the judges relied on long-standing Supreme Court precedent that minors enjoy privacy rights even if they must sometimes be weighed against a parent's.

"The parents are being removed from the equation, which doesn't bode well. It's only one case, but the message is not a good one for the family," said lawyer Joseph P. Stanton, who represents Melissa Anspach and her parents, Kurt and Karen Anspach, of Philadelphia.

Melissa Anspach visited the clinic in January 2004 for a pregnancy test, which was not available that day. At a friend's suggestion, she returned a short time later and asked for the morning-after pill, also known as Plan B. She spoke briefly with a social worker before a nurse gave her one dose at the clinic and a second dose to take 12 hours later.

After taking the second dose, Anspach experienced severe abdominal pains and vomiting. She told her parents about the medication and they took her to a hospital, where she was treated and released.

Plan B, a high dose of a drug found in many regular birth-control pills, can lower the risk of pregnancy by up to 89 percent if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. Some critics including Roman Catholic leaders consider the pill tantamount to abortion, although the manufacturer says it has no effect on women who are already pregnant.

The 3rd Circuit contrasted the Anspach case to others in which a teacher or coach actively directed minors to take a pregnancy test or seek an abortion actions the courts found intrusive.

"Here, the center, a public health clinic, had no authority over Melissa, nor did center staff become involved in Melissa's reproductive health decisions without invitation," the court said. "Melissa was only given the pills because she asked for them."

The Anspachs, who said they oppose abortion, also raised religious objections to the clinic's actions. The court rejected that argument on grounds their daughter had not expressed those views during the visit.

The Food and Drug Administration, after three years of bitter debate, ruled last year that Plan B could be sold over-the-counter to women 18 and older. Minors can obtain it at some clinics or with a prescription.

"We're obviously very pleased. There was no dissent. It's a very strong, clear decision," said Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney of the Women's Law Project in Pittsburgh, which filed an amicus brief in support of the city.

A possible telephone listing for the Anspachs, who live in Philadelphia, rang unanswered Monday.

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