If you live in California, you’ve probably heard about Prop 4, which would require parental notification for teenagers seeking abortion care. What’s scary about this proposition is that, unlike more extreme anti-choice laws, it actually looks pretty innocuous on paper. Supporters claim that it’ll foster communication between pregnant teens and their parents by having doctors contact the parents if said teen terminates a pregnancy. And abusive families? Oh, don’t worry about that – teens can just have the clinic contact a trusted relative, or they can go before a judge and obtain a waiver. Everyone wins!
Despite what your voter registration guide says, however, this is not what will actually happen.
Before I address the “exceptions” for abusive families, let me go through the ethical and practical reasons why parental notification is not a good idea. First off, a law can’t force families to communicate. If a teenager has gotten to the point where she’d rather pay for and go through an abortion alone than ask her parents for help, her family most likely has problems that a form letter isn’t going to solve. Yes, that’s what parental notification is: it’s not a visit from a counselor, it’s not a kindly intervention, it’s a form letter that either is hand-delivered or comes in the mail. And what is the teen supposed to do when it arrives? Stand there sheepishly as her parents open it?
A lot of people oppose consent, but are okay with the idea of notification. However, since there’s a mandatory 48 hour waiting period between notification and the procedure, requiring notification effectively equals requiring consent. If you don’t want your daughter to terminate, are you really going to sit on your hands while she goes ahead and does it? Especially if you’re already angry that you found out from a form letter?
Here’s one myth about parental notification: that it has lowered teen pregnancy rates in other states. This is a blatant lie. There is no connection between parental notification and lowered teen pregnancy rates. The cause of reductions in teen pregnancy is comprehensive sex education and accessible contraception, not parental notification. (Big thanks to Petitpoussin for the info.) Also, supporters like to claim that no teen has ever been harmed by parental notification. However, issues like abuse and teen pregnancy are complex and interconnected, so while it may be difficult to pin down one single cause of harm – for example, “If she had terminated the pregnancy, her father wouldn’t have hit her” – that doesn’t mean parental notification laws aren’t playing a part.
Here’s another myth: that parental notification protects teens from sexual predators. If you look at the argument in your voter registration guide, you’ll see that supporters don’t even attempt to explain how this would work. They’re using buzzwords to scare people into voting anti-choice.
And, hey, you know how they’re calling it “Sarah’s law?” Because of Sarah, who was killed when a sexual predator forced her to get an abortion, which was botched? Well, turns out there is no Sarah. The woman on whom the law is based was an adult; her situation had nothing to do with parental notification.
All this and more at the No on Prop 4 website.
Finally, one common argument is that if teens need their parents’ permission to take a Tylenol, then surely their parents should be notified if they’re undergoing a surgical procedure. Yeah, about that. All my life, I’ve suffered from severe menstrual cramps. Unless I’m already taking large doses of pain medication before the cramps start, I find myself in excruciating pain, completely unable to function. One day, when I was 16, the cramps hit me by surprise in 4th period English. By the time I got to the nurse’s office, I was sweating, shaking, and close to throwing up from the pain. I had to sit there for a full hour while the nurse contacted my mother and my mother finished an appointment and drove across town to plunk three pills in my hand. If I’d known I was going to get my period that day, I would have just broken the rules and brought my own.
So you know what? Maybe we should allow teens to make choices about their own bodies.
Now, these exceptions. I could sit here and tell you about why they don’t actually protect teens in abusive homes, but why take my word for it? Let’s play Choose Your Own Adventure: Your Prop 4 Saga!
A quick note before you start off on your adventure – while researching for this post, I found out that this is such a great idea that the No on 4 Campaign already had it. For a more detailed version of this story, see Jane’s Journey: Jane Goes to the Doctor.
YOUR PROP FOUR SAGA!
No, the test’s not lying: you’re pregnant. And fifteen. Maybe your boyfriend pressured you into sex; maybe the condom failed; maybe your abstinence program taught you that contraception’s useless anyway. Or maybe you’re just a normal human being who made a bad call. Anyway, looks like it’s time to go to the clinic. Your boyfriend expresses his condolences and stops returning your phone calls – after all, it’s not like he had anything to do with this. You don’t have a car, so you spend forty minutes on the bus. But at least it’ll be over soon.
“I need an abortion,” you say at the clinic.
“No problem,” says the nurse. “We’ve got those. Now, since you’re underage, we do need to notify your parents that you’re seeking care.”
Crap. That’s exactly what you were trying to avoid.
“Darn it,” you say. “I was afraid that I’d get grounded if my mom found out I was pregnant… but you know what? Now that I think about it, I guess that deep down I do kind of want to tell them. Okay, never mind – I’ll go home and do it myself.”
CONGRATULATIONS! You have a loving and respectful relationship with your parents. After you return home and tell them what’s going on, they give you a big hug and a cup of cocoa and then drive you back to the clinic the next day. After the procedure, you go on with your life, graduating from high school and college and starting a family when you’re thirty-two and firmly established in your career. You call your parents every week – just to talk!
What would happen if your parents found out you were pregnant – and even worse, that you sought an abortion? You shudder to think. They might kick you out of the house. They might physically abuse you. You can’t say for sure, but you’re really, seriously scared.
“No,” you say. “No, no, no. You don’t understand. My parents can’t know about this. Trust me, they can’t know.”
“Well,” the nurse says, “you could always notify another relative. Do you have an aunt? A sister? A grandmother?”
You’re flooded with relief. “My cousin,” you say. “Could you notify my cousin? Here, I’ll call her right now.”
“Wait a minute,” the nurse says as you pull out your cell phone. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on. We’ll send her the letter after you fill out and sign this affidavit stating that your parents abuse you.”
If you personally have been abused by your parents, click here. If you haven’t been abused, but have witnessed abuse in your household and/or know that your parents would react violently if they found out what you’re doing, click here.
You look at the form. “So I have to write down all of the things my parents have done to me? And then you’ll notify my cousin instead? This is all confidential, right?”
“Oh, no,” the nurse says. “We’re required to report it to the police.”
“What!?” you cry. “What’ll happen then!?”
“Well, they’ll open an investigation,” the nurse says, “and either a social worker or the police will come talk to you.”
The thought of the police showing up at your doorstep is too frightening to even consider. What would happen? Would you be put into foster care somewhere? Would the police leave you with your parents, who’d be angry at you for getting them into trouble? No one seems to get that if it were as simple as calling the police, you would have done that a long time ago. “Come on,” you plead. “That’s so stupid! That’ll make things even worse! And if the police come then my parents’ll find out about the abortion anyway!”
“You could do judicial bypass,” the nurse says. “Do you know about that?”
“Well,” you say, “my sister has been abused – does that count?”
The nurse shakes her head. “Sorry, it has to have been abuse against you.”
“But I know it will happen if my parents find out I’m pregnant,” you say.
The nurse winces understandingly, but is firm. “That’s not enough,” she says. “If you yourself haven’t been abused, we have to notify your parents.”
You’re about ready to cry. “That doesn’t make sense,” you say. “I am one hundred percent positive that bad things will happen if they know. Isn’t there any other way?”
“Do you know about judicial bypass?” she asks.
“You mean like go in front of a judge?” you ask. “How long will that take? Because I think I’ve been pregnant for a few weeks already and I don’t have enough money for a second trimester abortion.”
“Then you need to work fast,” the nurse says. A volunteer comes in to explain, briefly, how to go about it – and you leave the clinic feeling like you’re drowning in details.
A week later, you stand in a court room full of people waiting for their cases to be heard, along with your lawyer, your guardian ad litem, and perhaps a translator. You wish you didn’t have to broadcast your story to the entire world. “…and that’s why I can’t notify my parents,” you finish.
The judge sighs.
Oops! Looks like a safe abortion in a professional setting isn’t an option for you. God bless America!
So what are you going to do?
CONGRATULATIONS! You return to the clinic and they perform the procedure. Just in time, too – another week or so and you would have hit your second trimester, making all of your efforts for naught. You breathe a sigh of relief and go on with your life, eventually escaping your abusive household.
Well, it’s been five months, the baby has turned, and now you’re really starting to show. Maybe you’re looking into adoption, or maybe you’ve given up on college. The most pressing concern right now, though, is how your parents are taking the news.
Maybe they’re hitting you. Maybe they threw you out. Maybe you even fear for your life. Who knows? Who cares? You brought it on yourself, slut! Now love that baby!
You decide to take matters into your own hands. Going to another state isn’t an option, but you know there are people who perform abortions illegally. You know there are herbs or medication you can take. Hell, you’ve heard of people miscarrying from getting punched in the stomach. There has to be a way to do this.
Flip a coin. If it comes up HEADS, you either couldn’t find any options or tried something that didn’t work. Click here. If it comes up TAILS, you’ve done something extremely dangerous to your body. Click here.
That’s what you get for having sex.
When in doubt, just remember that the people who drafted prop 4 aren’t concerned with protecting teens; they’re concerned with limiting access to safe abortion. And despite its “exceptions,” this law will do just that.
So. If you live in California, please volunteer to help with the No on 4 campaign. If you live outside of California, or don’t have time in your schedule (I know a lot of people are already involved in multiple campaigns), please donate.
(Cross-posted at Modern Mitzvot.)