COMMENTARY

No, a pregnant teen who wants an abortion should not be forced to tell her parents

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Ideally, a pregnant minor should tell her parents if she's seeking an abortion. 

Ideally she should also tell her parents if she plans to continue the pregnancy and if she plans to give up the baby for adoption.

And, also ideally, all minors should tell their parents if they're using prescription contraceptives, if they're being treated for sexually transmitted infections or substance abuse, or if they're under the care of a mental health counselor.

Because parents not only have the wisdom of years, they also have the best interests of their adolescent children at heart and can be counted on to help them best navigate rocky moral and practical terrain.

Ideally.

In the real world, though, family dynamics can be fractured and strained. In the real world, such disclosures can be complicated by the normal conflicts between adolescents and their parents that sometimes take the form of emotional and physical abuse and financial blackmail. In the real world, the threat of estrangement looms.

So, understandably, the law in some states allows minors 12 and older to be pregnant, to give birth, to decide to put their babies up for adoption, to obtain contraceptives including the emergency "morning-after pill," to get treated for sexually transmitted infections and substance abuse, and to enter short-term mental health counseling, all without telling their parents.

The exception is abortion, my first example.

Since August 2013, Illinois law has in most cases required at least one parent or adult family member of a pregnant girl under age 18 to be informed at least 48 hours before she has an abortion.

The fact that it is inconsistent with other laws related to intimate sexual and reproductive activities of minors reveals that it's not aimed at bolstering family communication or increasing support for young women, but at discouraging abortion.

In that light, Illinois' Parental Notice of Abortion Act is no different from the architectural and other regulatory hurdles that conservative state legislatures around the country have enacted in recent years in an effort to close down clinics that provide abortion.

It's of a piece with the ultrasound-viewing and waiting-period requirements for patients put in place to make abortions more difficult and expensive to obtain.
Supporters of the law often point out that parental consent is required for most major medical procedures performed on minors, from appendectomies to nose jobs. And that abortion is a more profound procedure than routine surgeries.

But childbirth is also profound, and it's about 14 times riskier than abortion. Yet minors aren't required to inform their parents when receiving obstetric care.

Sexual activity is also profound. Yet, as I've noted, minors aren't required to inform their parents when obtaining birth control.

Supporters also point out that when girls with unwanted pregnancies come from dysfunctional or abusive families, the law allows them to petition a judge to waive the notification requirement.

That sounds fair enough. But it's often a burdensome requirement, according to officials from the American Civil Liberties Union now lobbying for Senate Bill 1594 in Illinois, a measure to repeal the parental notification act headed to the full legislature.

The ACLU provides legal services to girls seeking judicial waivers, and officials say girls often find it difficult and awkward to get to the courthouse and appear in a courtroom without being noticed by their parents or members of their community.
What's particularly telling is that of the 400 pregnant girls who have petitioned for the waiver in Illinois since 2013, only one has been denied, according to the ACLU, which cited attorney-client confidentiality in declining to disclose details of that case.

Similar ratios have been found in other states with parental notification or consent requirements, leading to the conclusion that it's unnecessary and wasteful to make all girls in crisis pregnancies jump through legal hoops just to find the fewer than 1 percent of them whose fears of telling their parents is unjustified in the opinion of a judge.

A paper published in 2017 in the Journal of Adolescent Health reviewed the medical records of nearly 1,600 abortion patients under age 21 treated at a private abortion provider in southern Illinois in the years just before and just after Illinois' notification law went into effect. The authors found that the number of abortions obtained by minors dropped by 29 percent at the clinic after the law was passed.

Are girls in significant number being discouraged by the law into remaining pregnant? Are they instead obtaining illegal or drug-induced abortions, or traveling to one of the 12 states without such laws? We don't know.

We do know that this law is an attack on abortion rights disguised as a promotion of parental rights. Ideally, our lawmakers will get rid of it. 

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