THE SUPREME COURT is cutting the legal bread of abortion rights into thinner and thinner slices. Its rulings, as with those this week on parental notification by pregnant minors, show the justices drawing ever-finer distinctions by wobbly thin majorities that lack any resounding consensus.
But the trend of the judicial tinkering is as plain as it is forbidding.
Today's high court eagerly discovers ways to fence in the right of abortion established by a strong majority in the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973. The 1990 court may even lack a majority that would continue to support abortion as a fundamental right linked to a woman's privacy.
That tragic turnaround is not yet guaranteed but remains a disturbing possibility.
Meanwhile, the fractured court tinkers and fiddles -- the latest cases coming from Minnesota and Ohio and concerning when and under what circumstances an unmarried woman under 18 must notify one or both parents or a court that she is pregnant before she may have an abortion.
By various majorities, the court said a state could require the girl to notify one or both of her parents provided that, if she did not want to do so, she had the legal option of applying to the court for a hearing.
Whether that hearing option is also required in statutes governing the notification of only one parent remains an issue left for another day, and more tinkering.
We agree that statutes providing the pregnant minor with an alternative through the courts to notifying her parents must be preferred to statutes without that alternative.
Better still, however, would be a ruling that voided legal requirements of notification altogether.
This is not to argue against the undoubted virtues of family discussion of a girl's pregnancy. Indeed, we would fervently hope for a resolution or settlement of such fundamental problems in a setting of family love and understanding.
What can be gained, however, in terms of a state's legitimate interests in the welfare of minor children or of encouraging parental responsibility, when a young unmarried girl is terrified of disclosing her pregnancy to her parents or is abused by their harsh, belittling response? What of her basic rights as a person? Why shouldn't she simply be free to discuss this with others she trusts -- a friend, a school counselor, a physician or a minister or priest?
And what of the trampling of her privacy when she must, to avoid notification of unsympathetic parents, reveal the most intimate, embarrassing details to an unfamiliar court in an intimidating legal procedure? How does that enhance her welfare?
As Justice Thurgood Marshall observed in dissent, the judicial bypass procedure, which emerged as the crux of the majority's justification for parental notification, itself should not pass constitutional muster.
"At the very least," Marshall wrote, "this scheme substantially burdens a woman's right to privacy without advancing a compelling state interest."
That tradeoff is no bargain, least of all for the young woman whose pregnancy pushes her toward a decision that can influence her life in basic ways for years to come.