Valley Hosp. Ass'n, Inc. v. Mat-Su Coalition for Choice

Decision Date21 November 1997
Docket NumberI-,No. S-7417,MAT-SU,A,S-7417
PartiesVALLEY HOSPITAL ASSOCIATION, INC., and James G. Walsh, Valley Hospital Executive Director, Appellants, v.COALITION FOR CHOICE, Dr. Susan Lemagie, and Jane Doesppellees.
CourtAlaska Supreme Court

Brian J. Brundin, Brundin, Inc., Anchorage, and James Bopp, Jr., Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom, Terre Haute, IN, for Appellants.

Stephan H. Williams, Cooperating Attorney for the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, Anchorage, and Janet L. Crepps and Kathryn Kolbert, Center for Reproductive Law & Policy, New York, NY, for Appellees.

Susan Wright Mason, Atkinson, Conway & Gagnon, Anchorage, for Amicus Curiae Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

Paul Benjamin Linton, Americans United for Life, Chicago, IL, and Kenneth P. Jacobus, Kenneth P. Jacobus, P.C., Anchorage, for Amici Curiae Members of the Alaska Legislature.

Jeffrey M. Feldman and Susan Orlansky, Young, Sanders & Feldman, Anchorage, for Amici Curiae American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and American Medical Women's Association, Inc.



COMPTON, Chief Justice.


Valley Hospital Association (VHA) seeks to reverse the superior court's summary judgment declaring unenforceable and permanently enjoining enforcement of its policy limiting abortion. We affirm the superior court. We hold that (1) Article I, section 22 of the Alaska Constitution encompasses reproductive rights, including abortion; (2) VHA is a quasi-public institution subject to the Alaska Constitution; (3) VHA's abortion policy is an unconstitutional restriction on the right to abortion; (4) AS 18.16.010(b) is unconstitutional to the extent it applies to quasi-public institutions; and (5) the superior court's award of attorney's fees was not an abuse of discretion.


VHA is a nonprofit corporation organized under Alaska law. It owns and operates a thirty-six-bed hospital in Palmer. The hospital is licensed by the State of Alaska (State); it is the only hospital in the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley. The hospital facility currently in use was rebuilt and expanded in the early 1980s, using $10.7 million in State funds and five acres of land donated by the City of Palmer. VHA is not affiliated with or operated by any religious organization. The corporation "is organized to serve public interests."

VHA's Board of Directors is divided into two boards, the Association Board and the Operating Board. The Association Board raises money and acquires property for the hospital and elects the Operating Board. The Operating Board has all the other powers and functions of the Board of Directors, including establishing hospital policy.

VHA is a membership organization. Any adult may become a VHA member upon paying a five dollar application fee. Members who are residents of the Mat-Su Borough, denominated "general members," annually elect the Association Board.

Abortion has been permitted in Alaska since 1970, when the state legislature passed the current abortion law. 1 VHA permitted lawful abortion procedures at its facility from 1970 until 1992. 2 In 1992 abortion opponents organized a campaign to enlarge the membership of VHA. In April 1992 a larger-than-usual membership elected the Association Board, which then elected the Operating Board. In September 1992 the Operating Board enacted a new policy on abortion. The policy prohibits abortions at the hospital unless (1) there is documentation by one or more physicians that the fetus has a condition that is incompatible with life; (2) the mother's life is threatened; or (3) the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. All VHA Operating Board members supported this new policy.

The Mat-Su Coalition for Choice, Dr. Susan Lemagie, and ten unnamed women (Coalition) filed suit against VHA and its executive director, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The Coalition then filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against VHA's abortion policy. The superior court granted the motion. 3 Its order temporarily enjoined enforcement of VHA's new abortion policy and restored the status quo existing before the policy was enacted. The court then granted the Coalition's motion for summary judgment 4 and permanently enjoined VHA

1. from enforcing any policy, rule, regulation, practice, or custom prohibiting the performance of any lawful abortion procedure at Valley Hospital;

2. from refusing to permit the facilities of Valley Hospital to be used for the performance of any lawful abortion procedure by qualified medical personnel;

3. and from imposing any restriction on the performance or scheduling of any lawful abortion procedure at Valley Hospital which is not based on accepted, established medical practices or requirements with respect to such procedures.

The superior court noted that nothing in the permanent injunction required anyone affiliated with the hospital "to participate directly in the performance of any abortion procedure if that person, for reasons of conscience or belief, objects to doing so."

The superior court granted full reasonable attorney's fees in the amount of $110,000 to the Coalition in a separate order. VHA appeals the injunction, the summary judgment, and the award of attorney's fees to the Coalition.

A. Standard of Review.

We apply our independent judgment in reviewing the questions of law presented in this appeal, adopting rules of law which are most persuasive in light of precedent, reason, and policy. Guin v. Ha, 591 P.2d 1281, 1284 n. 6 (Alaska 1979). We review the award of attorney's fees for abuse of discretion. Bromley v. Mitchell, 902 P.2d 797, 804 (Alaska 1995). An abuse of discretion is established only where the court's determination is manifestly unreasonable. Id.

B. The Alaska Constitution Protects Reproductive Autonomy, Including the Right to Abortion, More Broadly Than Does the United States Constitution.
1. The United States Constitution

The Supreme Court's articulation of the United States Constitution's protection of reproductive rights establishes the minimum protection provided to women in Alaska. 5 This protection includes the right to an abortion. Under Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 155, 93 S.Ct. 705, 728, 35 L.Ed.2d 147 (1973), this right could be limited only where required by a compelling state interest. Id. States could regulate abortions performed before a fetus became viable only when such regulation was necessary to ensure the life and health of the mother. Id. at 163, 93 S.Ct. at 731-32.

The compelling state interest test no longer accurately reflects federal constitutional law. Arguably, the prevailing federal view is that a state may regulate abortions so long as their regulation does not impose "an undue burden on a woman's ability" to decide to have an abortion. Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 875, 112 S.Ct. 2791, 2819, 120 L.Ed.2d 674 (1992) (joint opinion of Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter). The O'Connor plurality substituted the undue burden test for the compelling state interest test in recognition of the view that there "is a substantial state interest in potential life throughout pregnancy." Id. at 876, 112 S.Ct. at 2820. The following paragraphs from the joint opinion in Casey suggest the current state of federal constitutional law concerning reproductive rights:

(a) To protect the central right recognized by Roe v. Wade while at the same time accommodating the State's profound interest in potential life, we will employ the undue burden analysis as explained in this opinion. An undue burden exists, and therefore a provision of law is invalid, if its purpose or effect is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.

(b) We reject the rigid trimester framework of Roe v. Wade. To promote the State's profound interest in potential life, throughout pregnancy the State may take measures to ensure that the woman's choice is informed, and measures designed to advance this interest will not be invalidated as long as their purpose is to persuade the woman to choose childbirth over abortion. These measures must not be an undue burden on the right.

(c) As with any medical procedure, the State may enact regulations to further the health or safety of a woman seeking an abortion. Unnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion impose an undue burden on the right.

(d) Our adoption of the undue burden analysis does not disturb the central holding of Roe v. Wade, and we reaffirm that holding. Regardless of whether exceptions are made for particular circumstances, a State may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy before viability.

(e) We also reaffirm Roe's holding that "subsequent to viability, the State in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother." Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. at 164-65, 93 S.Ct. at 732.

505 U.S. at 878-79, 112 S.Ct. at 2821.

2. The Alaska Constitution

We sometimes have taken a broad view of our role in defining state constitutional rights:

[W]e are under a duty to develop additional constitutional rights and privileges under our Alaska Constitution if we find such fundamental rights and privileges to be within the intention and spirit of our local constitutional language and to be necessary for the kind of civilized life and ordered liberty which is at the core of our constitutional heritage.

Baker v. City of Fairbanks, 471 P.2d 386, 401-02 (Alaska 1970) (extending the constitutional right to a jury trial). 6 Thus, our articulation of the protection of reproductive rights under...

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