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Parental Notification Laws Obstruct Abortion Access

Friday, 13 September 2013 00:00 By Claire Glass, Truthout | News Analysis
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Ultrasound.A woman undergoes an ultrasound by a doctor before an abortion. (Photo: Kendrick Brinson / The New York Times)Parent involvement laws cannot conjure love and support for pregnant teens where there's violence in the home; what they do is reduce access to abortion and increase the likelihood of more complicated later-term abortions.

After a decades-long legal battle against parental involvement laws for abortion, Illinois became the 39th state to enact legislation on August 15. Now, minors in the state will have to notify a parent, grandparent, live-in stepparent, or legal guardian 48 hours before having an abortion. These laws have proven to be some of the most toxic in a nationwide assault on reproductive rights, whittling away the potency of Roe v. Wade.

"Ever since Roe v. Wade and the Webster decision, which was the first major decision that said you could pass parental consent laws, the strategy has been to chip away and make accessibility as hard as possible in the hopes that you prevent some women from having abortions, and this law is one of those strategies," Brigid Leahy, director of government relations at Planned Parenthood Illinois told Truthout. "This doesn't make things safer, just harder."

The legislation's advocates would have us believe these mandates are designed to protect women and girls from the supposed danger of the procedure itself, or from immaturity, as the case may be. Putting the gross paternalism aside, those claims are flawed in the most basic sense; abortion is about 14 times safer than childbirth in the United States, especially for very young women, statistics show.

"There's no justification, especially for this notion that we have to protect them from themselves," said Lorie Chaiten, director of the Reproductive Rights Project for the Illinois ACLU.  "The truth is it's an attempt to put obstacles in the way of accessing abortion." 

In May, Republican members of the House Judiciary and House Energy and Commerce Committees lead a witch hunt to prove that viable infants are being murdered all over the country a la Kermit Gosnell (convicted in four deaths at a clinic in Philadelphia). In response, RH Reality Check used the Freedom of Information act to acquire the very same state-by-state sweep, and published its own report. The results fly in the face of anti-choice rhetoric; clinics all over the country are overwhelmingly safe and well-regulated.

That said, most Americans support parental involvement laws, according to a 2005 Gallup poll, perhaps because proponents are unaware of the complex circumstances under which some minors opt for abortion, and may overlook real concerns regarding adult involvement. Forced involvement cannot conjure love and support where it's absent. 

"If you talk to people who actually work with dysfunctional families, when they hear about this law, they gasp," Chaiten told Truthout. "We see young women who have been beaten and kicked out of their homes; young girls who have seen older sisters kicked out, whose families would force them to carry to term because of religious beliefs. These fears are quite real." 

As of 2007 61 percent of parents in states without parental involvement laws knew their daughters were having abortions. Of those who did not tell their parents, 30 percent had already been the victims of domestic violence, were afraid that they might be harmed, or feared they'd be thrown out on the street. 

Statistics echo those fears: According to NARAL , almost 50 percent of pregnant teens who have been abused before, report being assaulted while pregnant, most often by a family member. What's more, research has shown that domestic violence is often at its height when a member of the family is pregnant.

And yet, just 16 of 39 states with parental involvement laws provide exceptions for minors who are victims of sexual and physical assault, incest or neglect, and 36 states provide for exceptions in the case of a medical emergency. The former exception requires a minor to present a written letter describing her abuse, about which the doctor may be obligated to inform the Department of Children and Family Services. 

The remaining minors can opt for Judicial Bypass; this hearing requires a minor to go before a judge and convince him or her that she is mature enough to make the decision herself, or that it is in her best interest not to involve an adult. 

"It's a state-sanctioned process of deception that forces a minor to go to court and stand before a judge to discuss the most private and intimate parts of her life to access a constitutional right," Chaiten said. "We make them jump through hoops and barriers that in many cases keep them from being able to effectuate their choice."

Chaiten coordinates the ACLU's Judicial Bypass hotline in Illinois, which provides information and free access to lawyers for minors seeking abortion in the state. Young women aren't obligated to use a real name at any point in the process, which is entirely confidential. 

Those services can be immensely helpful to those who come across the hotline and decide they can navigate the process, but an untold number may never reach that step. Given the tremendous obstacles to obtaining a legal abortion, many women may become discouraged and seek illegal options. Others may be forced to carry pregnancies to term for lack of transportation, money or information. 

"You make it so difficult that there are only a few providers in the state, and rural women have to travel, can't get off work, have no access to transportation," Leahy said. "There's a concerted effort to target the most vulnerable, to target teens who don't have a vote and poor women. The rhetoric is, 'We're doing this in their best interest.' But they're smart and capable."

Most judges find in the minors' favor, which means these laws often simply delay the inevitable. Later-term abortions pose a host of additional complications - like finding a willing provider - as well as being more complex and expensive to perform. In states like Alabama and Arkansas, which ban abortion after 20 weeks, these minors may miss their chance altogether.

According to Leahy, 17-year-olds who are close to their 18th birthdays sometimes wait until they age out of the law, unnecessarily increasing second trimester abortions. For instance, after Texas enacted parental involvement laws, the proportion of second trimester abortions rose by 21 percent among minors.

Additional obstacles vary by state; Oklahoma requires valid ID and notarized documentation from adults to prove they've been notified; in Arizona, which denies 25 percent of judicial bypasses, some judges require visits to anti-choice pregnancy crisis centers. 

"A young woman who has figured out the system, is resourceful enough to get in front of a judge in the first place, is then being forced by the judge to go back and talk to a fake clinic, which here in Arizona do not provide medically accurate information - lots of them have ultrasound equipment without certified technologists, for example," Kat Sabine, executive of NARAL Pro-Choice Arizona said. "This is where personal politics are overriding legal access to medical care."

In Ohio, minors must have judicial bypasses in their home county, which has resulted in breaches of confidentiality. According to an ACLU fact sheet, in one instance, a minor encountered her sister in the courthouse on a field trip while she was waiting for her hearing. In another, a minor ran into her father leaving the courthouse. 

In Illinois, a judge must rule within 48 hours of the hearing, not counting weekends, after which the ruling is automatically in the minor's favor. In Indiana, where no such provision exists, courts avoid ruling for as long as possible. (Incidentally, Indiana is one of the states that prohibits abortion after 20 weeks.)

"We're going to continue to see northwest Indiana girls come to Illinois for abortions even now that they'll have the go through the bypass process because chances are those courts will never rule," Chaiten said. 

On top of this abuse of power, the very fabric of the law doesn't make sense, according to opponents, in that it says a minor may be at once too immature to opt for abortion but mature enough to make all health-care decisions regarding her pregnancy, if she decides to carry it to term. 

"If she chooses that she is going to parent, it is her responsibility under the law to make all the decisions for her health care: C-section, ultra sounds, prenatal care," Leahy said. "And once she has a child she's the parent, even though under the parental notification law, she's the minor."

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

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