One of many unspoken rules in America is court system goes like this: You never run out of appeals until you run out of money.
Now things are beginning to look quite similar in the ballot initiative department, where the notion of parental notification prior to abortions for girls under 18 is before the voters for the third time in the last four years. Both previous times, this concept failed by narrow margins, leading anti-abortion activists to hope the third time might be a charm.
And just as in 2005 and 2006, early polls show parental notification, on the ballot as Proposition 4, leading narrowly.
Here’s what we are talking about: If you are a pregnant teenage girl and this passes, you would no longer be able to go to Planned Parenthood or a doctor for an abortion without 48 hours notice to your parents or guardian. If there’s a record of parental abuse, another adult relative could be notified.
So let’s say 16-year-old Susie finds herself pregnant a couple of months after a wild night of visiting raves, with pauses for affection in the back seat of a car with young Jason. Jason won’t marry her or otherwise accept responsibility and Susie wants to get an abortion because she’s not ready for motherhood and would have no way to support the baby. Now she can’t get it, without 48 hours notice to her parents.
Even if her father has often beaten her for trivial misconduct, or for no particular reason, he’ll find out well before any abortion can proceed. Never mind Susie’s justified fear of him; he has no formal record of abuse. Nominally, Proposition 4 still leaves the abortion decision to Susie, but how likely is she to go ahead if she thinks Dad will beat her before or after? For that matter, how likely is she even to seek a legal safe abortion if she knows her father will find out? Instead, studies of case histories indicate she is likely to try to abort the baby herself, using a coat hanger or the like, or seek an illicit back-alley provider.
So the upside of parental notification is that some parents will be involved in their children’s decisions and their lives. The downside is that because of the potential of such involvement, some teenagers will die or be maimed.
And then there’s the situation where a girl becomes pregnant via contact with an adult male relative: father, stepfather, uncle, cousin, grandfather, or whoever. “Incest is formally reported in under five percent of sexual abuse victims,” reported the author of a landmark 2006 study at the University of Texas-San Antonio Health Science Center. “But it is vastly underreported because girls made pregnant by their fathers or stepfathers are often pressured to say they are pregnant by a boyfriend.”
Proposition 4 would force many of these girls to report their wish for an abortion to the very men who impregnated them against their will, so long as there is no formal history of abuse. So much for their being free to consent to an abortion.
Of course, girls would have the option under Proposition 4 to get a court waiver of parental notice. But how many 14-year-olds know where to find a judge, let along feel confident enough to seek one out while pregnant and then confide in him or her?
The concept of parental notification is based on the notion that there will be few teenage abortions if parents know about matters in advance.
But that’s not true, it turns out. “The percentages of minors who inform parents about their intent to have abortions are essentially the same in states with and without parental notification,” the American Academy of Pediatrics reported in a position paper early in this decade. The doctors group reported that the younger the girl, the more likely she will tell her parents, regardless of the law.
But where girls are legally required to notify parents, the percentage of back-alley abortions goes up.
The likelihood is that public attitudes on abortion have changed little or not at all since 2005 and 2006. So this proposition will be decided by a very narrow margin, just like its two predecessors.
And the bottom line realities about it are the same, too: Despite the emotions of parents like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who always says he favors choice on abortion, but endorsed parental notice in 2005), this measure would do little or nothing for girls with solid parent-child relationships, where serious matters are handled openly. But it could create major harm for teenagers already at risk because they come from abusive homes, including some where incest is common.