Leaving Pregnant Teens In the Lurch

Human Rights

Today the Senate will vote on a dangerous and divisive proposal backed by Sen. Bill Frist that would do nothing to protect our young people or promote conversation between teens and their parents. Known as the Child Custody Protection Act , the bill would prohibit anyone other than a parent -- including a grandparent, aunt, adult sibling, or member of the clergy -- from accompanying a young woman across state lines for an abortion if the home state's parental-involvement law has not been met.

We all agree that teenage girls in trouble should turn to their parents for guidance, and thankfully, most already do. But CCPA would not improve a family situation that is already bad. Worse, it would put girls who, for whatever reason, can't talk to their parents about tough issues like sex into serious danger. In that case, we should urge a teenager to turn to another responsible adult -- like a grandmother or clergy member -- not isolate her.

The tragic story of 13-year-old Spring Adams in Idaho illustrates how CCPA could jeopardize young women's safety. Spring was shot to death by her father after he learned she was planning to terminate a pregnancy caused by his incest. If CCPA passes, trusted, caring and responsible adults would be faced with the threat of prosecution for responding to a young woman like Spring who approaches them because she fears involving her parent in her request for an abortion.

In one study, 93 percent of minors who did not involve a parent in their decision to obtain an abortion were still accompanied by someone to the doctor's office. Although legal abortion is very safe, it is typically advisable that any kind of medical patient have accompaniment, even for minor surgery. But the CCPA would force some minors to drive themselves to out-of-state clinics, without the help of trusted adults or friends.

This, along with concerns for doctor-patient confidentiality, is precisely why leading medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, advise against parental-involvement mandates.

Tuesday's vote on CCPA also begs the question of congressional priorities. If Congress is serious about the issue of abortion among young people, it should drop divisive anti-choice bills like CCPA and instead make a worthwhile investment in programs that prevent teen pregnancy in the first place.

The United States, where 866,000 teenagers become pregnant each year, has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and teen births in the Western industrialized world.

Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, both Democrats from New Jersey, are taking a more responsible approach to this challenge. Their proposal would fund teen-pregnancy-prevention programs in schools and community groups, pilot programs to teach young people about the serious responsibilities that come with parenthood, and programs that help parents talk to their kids about tough topics like sex.

Unfortunately, Frist and his anti-choice allies would rather play politics than find solutions. CCPA, like the gay-marriage ban, has long been on the right wing's to-do list. Frist's need to pacify his increasingly demoralized far-right base before the November elections -- not his concern for teen safety -- is the real reason CCPA is on the Senate floor.

While many constructive solutions to the problem of teen pregnancy do exist, CCPA isn't among them. Congress should fund programs that provide honest, realistic sex education, teach young people about the serious responsibilities that accompany parenthood, help parents talk to their children about difficult subjects like sex, and stop slashing budgets for after-school programs that keep kids out of trouble and on the road to success.

Prevention -- not punishment -- is the better path for Sen. Frist and the Senate to take.

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