Parental notification sounds like a great idea when a teenage girl is pregnant and considering an abortion. In a day when many parents fear public schools and other outsiders are taking too much control of their kids’ lives, some adults feel this is a way to make sure they are involved in one of the most important decisions a young woman can make.
As one newspaper reader wrote last fall, “It seems like we’ll soon be handing our kids to the state at birth to be raised by ’big brother and big sister.’ “
But parental notification, on the ballot this fall as Proposition 85, still has all the same problems it did last year, when it narrowly failed as Proposition 73 in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed $43 million special election.
One problem, of course, is that the abortion issue in general often brings out the hypocrite in politicians. Schwarzenegger, for one, proclaimed loudly while running for governor in the recall election of 2003 that he was a firm believer in women’s absolute right to choose. But two years later, he strongly endorsed Prop. 73, allowing that, “I wouldn’t want to have someone take my daughter for an abortion or something and not tell me. I would kill them if they do that.” So Schwarzenegger is all for freedom of reproductive choice – just not for his daughter or other young women her age.
But hypocrisy from politicians and the raw emotion the abortion issue often arouses are far from the biggest problems of parental notification and the terms of this year’s ballot proposition.
The large problems are twofold:
One is that there is no evidence parental notification measures like Prop. 85 have ever caused pregnant young women who would not otherwise inform parents or guardians to communicate more with the adults in their lives.
“The percentages of minors who inform parents about their intent to have abortions are essentially the same in states with and without notification laws,” says the official position paper on adolescent abortion issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the national association of doctors who deal with children and teenagers.
The doctors’ group adds that both in states with notification and those without it, as California has been up to now, about 61 percent of unmarried pregnant minors told one or both parents about their intention to have an abortion. The younger the girl, the more likely she is to tell a parent, regardless of the law.
Fully 90 percent of those 14 years old or younger inform parents or guardians; 74 percent of those 16 and under do the same. The pediatrician group said inner-city, black teenagers are the most likely to inform adults, with more than 91 percent consulting a parent or a “parent surrogate” (defined as a grandparent, aunt or other relative who reared them).
The same doctors’ group reported girls in states with notification laws who get abortions are disproportionately older teens, white and employed.
The second major flaw in Prop. 85: A significant portion of girls who seek abortions have been introduced to sex involuntarily by an older male relative. “Incest is formally reported in under five percent of sexual abuse victims, but is vastly underreported because girls made pregnant by their fathers or stepfathers are often pressured to say they are pregnant by a boyfriend,” reports Dr. Nancy Kellogg, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas-San Antonio Health Science Center and a member of the pediatrics academy committee on child abuse.
No one knows precisely how many teenage pregnancies are caused by incest, but all authorities agree the number is vastly more than the reported five percent because of the ease larger, older male relatives can have in intimidating young women.
Prop. 85 would often force these girls to report their wish for an abortion to the very men – fathers, stepfathers or other so-called guardians – who impregnated them against their will. It does nothing to prevent those men from becoming violent. Some freedom of choice.
Yes, Prop. 85, like parental notification measures in some other states, has what backers call an “out” for these troubled adolescents. It allows them to consult a judge rather than a doctor. Question: How many 14-year-old girls know where to find a judge, let alone feel confident enough while pregnant to seek one out and confide in him or her?
This is why the pediatrics academy, reflecting the preponderance of doctors who deal with adolescents, opposes parental notification requirements. The doctors are convinced this rule can cause significant numbers of girls to seek out illegal, unsanitary back-alley abortions that often prove life-threatening.
All of which means that despite the emotions of parents like Schwarzenegger, parental notification would do little or nothing for girls with solid parent-child relationships. But it could create potential major harm to teenagers already at risk because they come from abusive homes, including some where incest is common.