Monday, March 06, 2006

Parental Notice and Consent Requirements: Neither Pro-choice nor Pro-life


This New York Times article argues that passage of parental notification and parental consent laws following Casey has not had a significant effect in reducing abortions among teenagers, at least when judged in comparison to similar rates of abortion among 18 and 19 year olds who are not subject to the laws.

Parental notice and consent laws, which are quite popular, are premised on an idea of choice, but the relevant actor is the family instead of the individual woman. The family decides whether the woman will get an abortion. That sort of paternalism is unacceptable for adults, but many Americans embrace it for minor children, on the grounds that parents are asked to consent for other significant surgeries their children undergo.

Abortion rights groups are worried that parents will prevent children from having abortions they would otherwise choose (just as pro-life groups are hoping this will be the case) but the statistics from the Times suggest that the cumulative effect of the laws is not very great; indeed, the story reports, some parents urge their children to have abortions.

Thus even if parental notification and consent laws cause some minors not to have abortions, they may also cause some minors to have abortions when their parents would prefer it. In one sense, that's not what either pro-choice or pro-life people wanted. Pro-life people wanted to reduce the total number of abortions, while pro-choice people want the decision to be made by the individual woman and not forced on her by her family.

Parental notification and consent laws, however, are only one arrow in the quiver of pro-life groups. Bans on partial birth abortion, which the Supreme Court will revisit later this year, are another. However, these laws affect only a very small number of women each year, and the lack of a health exception in the Federal law may actually prevent almost no abortions; if the partial birth abortion procedure is safer in some small number of cases, banning it would simply make a small number of late term abortions that would happen anyway less safe. Thus, like parental notification and consent laws, these laws may have largely symbolic effects.

It would be well worth doing surveys that compare the effect of parental notification and consent laws with TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws that impose fairly burdensome licensing and inspection obligations on abortion clinics, and with waiting periods laws that require women to make multiple trips to obtain abortions (which can be especially burdensome for women in rural areas). It is possible that these laws have the greatest impact on reducing the number of abortions by constricting opportunities for poor women and women in rural areas. If so, they may do comparatively little to hinder women in large urban areas or women who are comparatively affluent however. Once again, the effect on the overall number of abortions may not be as great as pro-life advocates have hoped; the effect of TRAP laws and waiting period laws may be mostly to make access to abortions difficult for the poorest women and for those with the fewest resources to raise children on their own.

Finally, it is worth considering that the reform that has done more to reduce the total number of abortions in the years since abortion was legalized in the United States is better access to and education about contraception. If pro-life forces are particularly interested in reducing the total number of abortions, they might join with pro-choice groups to promote the use of contraception and prevent unwanted pregnancies from happening in the first place. Abstinence programs aimed at teenagers can be a part of a larger effort at reducing total unwanted pregnancies, but by themselves they are unlikely to do the job.

Increased focus on making contraception widely available, especially to young people, educating them in how to use contraception, and emphasizing the importance of using it is probably the single most effective reform that the pro-life movement might make to reduce the total number of abortions in the United States.

Such a program might be acceptable to significant parts of the pro-life movement, but it may be unpalatable to others, either because they have moral and religious qualms about contraception, or because promoting contraceptive use does nothing to stem sexual activity by unmarried people or encourage greater chastity among women. That is to say, for important segments of the pro-life movement, the fight over abortion is not just a fight about reducing abortions, but is connected to a larger struggle about proper behavior, particularly the sexual behavior of women. For these parts of the pro-life movement, the discovery that parental notification and consent laws are not significantly reducing the number of teenage abortions may be doubly upsetting, for it also suggests that these laws are not significantly affecting the sexual behavior of teenagers.


It seems strange that a parental notification law would ever cause a teen to have an abortion. These laws do not require pregnant teens to tell their parents, only pregnant teens who want to have an abortion. Therefore, it is unlikely that the law would ever cause a girl to be talked into having an aboriton by their parent. The only situation where I could imagine such a situation happening is if a girl is sure enough that she wants to have an abortion that she goes to her parents, but then changes her mind, only to be reconvinced to have the abortion by her parents, not very likely.

It seems strange that a parental notification law would ever cause a teen to have an abortion. These laws do not require pregnant teens to tell their parents, only pregnant teens who want to have an abortion.
And that's exactly why the stated premise behind these laws -- that parents have the right to be involved in their children's medical decisions -- is such a lie. It's clearly false, clearly not the purpose of parental notification laws. Pregnancy and childbirth are major health events just as much as abortion is; actually, MORE so. Full-term pregnancy and childbirth are much more risky for teenagers, especially the younger they are, than is a first-trimester abortion. Yet parents who oppose abortion do not seem to feel that they need to know if their daughter is pregnant or if she has pregnancy-related health concerns (like preeclampsia, toxemia, hypertension, etc.). Apparently parents who don't want their daughter having an abortion do not care if their daughter goes through labor and delivery alone, or even whether she gives birth in a hospital or in a bus station bathroom, or out in a field somewhere. Parental notification laws do not address that aspect of girls' health decisions at all.

it is unlikely that the law would ever cause a girl to be talked into having an aboriton by their parent

Well, not in a totally logical world, perhaps, but in a world where kids can be very confused and scared and impulsive, sure, this could happen. A girl could approach a clinic for advice, be read the notification law, involve her parents, and get pressured into having the abortion.

kathy's point is very strong. The right wing is not as interested in women's health or safety as in policing women's sexual conduct. To a great extent, I think many anti-choice people want female sexuality to have drastic and painful consequences.

And I think many pro-"choice" people want men who rape minors to go uncaught, because the alternative crimps their social life too much.

There, now that we've gotten presuming bad faith on each other's part out of the way, can we discuss this as if we each didn't believe the other side was motivated by conscious malevolence?

Post a Comment

Older Posts
Newer Posts