Human Rights

When Mom and Dad Don't Know Best

Twenty-three years ago, I helped my teenage sister get an abortion, without telling our parents. Today her story is still proof to me that parental consent laws don't work.
I grew up the second of three daughters in a pro-choice household in Fargo, N.D. Our family talked about politics, read Our Bodies, Ourselves and voted Democrat, but when it came to actually discussing sex, my parents' mantra was "high school is too young."

In 1985, the summer after my freshman year in high school, my 16-year-old sister told me she was pregnant. Andrea, a National Merit Scholar, knew two things: She wanted an abortion and she didn't want to tell mom and dad.

"I'll help you," I said, honored that she'd turned to me.

Andrea wasn't worried that my parents would throw her out or beat her. She, like many minors who become pregnant, was more concerned about preserving her relationship with her family.

"I remember feeling like I can't add this to the official roster of things I've done," Andrea told me recently. "I was too young emotionally to have sex, but physically I wasn't. Any conversation I would have had with mom and dad would have ended with them telling me not to do it." She didn't want them to know anything about what felt to her like "a big mistake."

Andrea had $60 saved from her job at Burger King. I helped her raise the additional $200 she needed by borrowing it from an acquaintance at school. Although North Dakota had had an abortion clinic since 1980, there was also a law, in place since 1981, stipulating that both parents consent to a minor's abortion. Andrea went through the process of getting a judicial bypass. The clinic steered her though an interview with an amenable judge, I got her the money just in time and Andrea got her abortion. Although the experience was difficult for her, we were rather proud that we'd gone through it alone.

I've thought about Andrea's story a lot lately, especially now that California -- which, like New York, generally has very liberal abortion laws -- is considering its first parental notification legislation. Missouri and other states are considering laws that would make it a crime to even counsel a girl about her options. Some 33 states enforce parental consent or notification laws. In fact, it is the most popular restriction among people who support Roe v. Wade. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center (released August 3, 2005) found that 73 percent of Americans supported some form of required parental consent. When asked why, people often cite the fact that a minor can't have a wisdom tooth removed without parental consent, so why should she be allowed to have an abortion on her own?

But Andrea's story always seemed proof to me that parental consent laws --logical as they may sound -- don't work. If a girl doesn't want to tell her parents, she won't, even if they are nice and pro-choice.

By necessity, many clinics know how to efficiently work around the restriction of parental notification. Jane Bovard, the clinic director of the Red River Women's Clinic, who helped Andrea get her judicial bypass, told me she has never been turned down in 25 years of doing about two judicial bypasses a week. But many judges aren't so willing, and in states where bypasses aren't easy to come by, clinic workers are more likely to see a girl ask her boyfriend to beat her abdomen with a baseball bat (as in a recent Michigan case), than to see an increase in minors telling their parents. Bovard estimates that 80 percent of the minors she has worked with do tell their parents. The law mandating that they do so hasn't changed that statistic.

"If you are looking at 14-year-olds or younger, it's almost universal that they include their parents," Peg Johnston, another longtime clinician, told me.

Johnston is the clinic director at Southern Tier Women's Services in Binghamton, N.Y., and a founder and director of the Abortion Conversation Project (ACP). She says, "I appreciate the New York State legislature's willingness to stay out of parental consent laws. State law says if you are old enough to get pregnant, you are already a mother, to some extent, and you get to choose what course your life will take." She continues: "Having said that, it is a crisis and these young women need all of the support that they can get. Unfortunately government statutes tend to be punitive, not supportive."

ACP is working on a campaign called "Mom, Dad, I'm Pregnant" to help parents and kids talk to each other during this kind of crisis and to encourage open communication.

The Reverend Becky Turner of Missouri's Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice gave me advice more powerful than any law. When her own daughter was about 14, Turner accompanied her to a routine GYN appointment and told the gynecologist she wanted her to write in her daughter's chart that regardless of what the law is at the time, she can treat her daughter as an adult patient.

"I said: 'I hope she will feel comfortable coming to me, but if for any reason she doesn't, I want you to please give her what she needs. If she needs birth control, give it to her; if she needs an abortion referral, please make it and don't feel like you need to call me for permission.' I think, as a result of that, she tells me more than I want to know," says Turner, laughing, "but it's my moment that I am most proud of as a parent."

Andrea did eventually tell our mother, who told our father. Our parents weren't mad at her; they were heartsick and frustrated with me, too, for helping. I remember being angry that they didn't appreciate why I'd helped her rather than turn to them. It took me a long time to begin to understand how devastating being excluded from Andrea's pregnancy and abortion was to them. I'm still honored that Andrea turned to me, and grateful that she was able to get the abortion she wanted. But 20 years later, in a time when abortion is, if anything, more stigmatized, I want to do anything I can to help girls and parents turn to each other, willingly.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the co-author of "Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism" and "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future." This is the first in her exclusive monthly series of articles for AlterNet on gender, culture and reproductive rights.
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