Do parental consent laws protect pregnant minors? The risks of politicizing teen abortion.
was 15 when I had an abortion. Wisconsin state law didn’t—and still doesn’t—allow minors to have abortions without the consent of a parent or guardian. Yet as soon as I saw the results of my pregnancy test I made two important decisions: I would have an abortion and I would not involve my parents.
Without the consent of my parents, I worried I’d have to resort to unsafe or illegal methods, but my trusted family doctor told me about another option.
“You can receive a judicial bypass,” she said. “You can petition the juvenile courts to determine whether they believe you’re mature enough to consent to an abortion.”
In the United States, there are two major types of legislation that mandate parental involvement in their daughters’ abortions: parental consent and parental notification. Consent laws such as the ones I encountered in Wisconsin require a parent to give permission to their children, while notification laws mandate that a parent be notified of their daughter’s decision either by the minor or her doctor.
The third option, judicial bypass, was determined by the United States Supreme Court, who ruled that states may not give parents and guardians an absolute veto over their daughters’ decisions to have an abortion. Criteria for waivers of parental involvement vary from state to state, but generally include assessing the minor’s understanding of abortion procedures as well as her intelligence and emotional capacity to make such an important decision.
After speaking with my boyfriend, doctor, and other trusted adults, I felt confident that I understood the consequences of having an abortion and I also believed that I was mature enough to make my own decision. I called the courthouse to make an appointment to state my case.
“I want to finish high school without the burden of raising a baby,” I told the judge. “But I worry that my mom, a Catholic, will never consent to me having an abortion.” After answering a number of personal questions about my goals, school, work, and sexual history, as well as receiving a lecture about how I should be better about using birth control pills and condoms (as though I hadn’t already thought about that and discussed it with my doctor), the judge granted me a bypass.
On my way out of the courthouse, I gave furtive glances up and down the street to ensure I didn’t recognize any adults who might wonder why I was out of school. It was a scary feeling, thinking that after finally receiving a waiver from the judge I might be detected by one of my parents’ friends. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had reason to be paranoid. Going to a courthouse strips away a layer of confidentiality; there have been many cases where teens were found out simply by running into a family friend.
By the time I got to my car, I felt a small wave of guilt. I hadn’t been completely honest with the judge. Although my stepfather was a Baptist minister, he was neither Bible-beating nor conservative. My mother, while raised Catholic, had taken her new husband’s faith. They were, and still are, lovely, open-minded people. I felt confidant they would have provided their consent. I just didn’t feel it should be required.
Today I have a great relationship with my parents, but at the time we didn’t get along very well. I didn’t want to give them what I believed would be yet another reason to be disappointed in me, and I certainly wasn’t comfortable telling them about my sexuality. The thought of approaching them to discuss abortion when we could barely have a civil discussion about something as simple as my curfew made me literally break out in hives. In addition, as a budding feminist, I reasoned that if I was old enough to drive a car, pay taxes on the wages I made at my after school movie theater job, and take birth control pills prescribed by my doctor, I should also be allowed control over my own pregnancy.
While I believed my reasons not to involve my parents were valid, I worried that without evidence besides my own opinion of my maturity, a judge might not find my case convincing. Thus my reasoning for fudging the truth. After all, I’d only have one shot in front of the judge. I had to make it count. The feigned Catholic guilt of a family member seemed as good a reason as any to lie, and I felt confident that if ever I found myself in a confessional (highly doubtful, but one never knows), a priest would grant forgiveness or at least expunge my “sin” by giving me 10 Hail Mary’s.
I feel even more strongly, 23 years later, that teens should be allowed their own reproductive choices. Globally, teenagers obtain 17 percent of the world’s 42 million annual abortions. When acquired legally, only 0.3 percent of abortion patients experience complications, and only 0.6 out of 100,000 abortion procedures result in death. In comparison, the risk of mortality for women who deliver babies is about 14 times higher: 8.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, with another seven deaths per 100,000 during pregnancy. These numbers include the deaths of teen girls, who have higher rates of preeclampsia than women in their 20s and 30s.
Despite abortion being safer than carrying a baby to term, 38 states require consent or notification of one or both parents for a minor to have an abortion, while no state requires parental consent or notification for prenatal care or delivery services—even invasive and statistically more dangerous cesarean deliveries.
The laws mandating parental involvement in a minor’s decision to have an abortion appear more politically motivated than health-related. By the time many teens get their parents’ consent or receive a judicial bypass, their first trimesters have often passed, meaning they are either forced to carry an unwanted child to term or obtain abortions during their second trimesters. In fact, more teen girls than adult women have risky abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Physical health aside, proponents of parental involvement claim that parental consent and judicial bypass decisions lessen the possibility of emotional trauma. Yet all but five states allow a minor to place her child for adoption without parental consent or notification. Is carrying a child to term, delivering that child, and offering her for adoption less emotionally traumatic than having an abortion?
At 15, I chose not to speak to my parents about wanting to have an abortion. But that shouldn’t have been a free pass allowing a judge to ask me personal questions in order to decide my fate. What if I had been seated before a conservative, pro-life judge? What if I had been shy and unable to give a decent interview? What if I hadn’t lied and said my mom was Catholic? Most important: What if the judge hadn’t granted me a bypass? Would I have been forced to choose between getting an illegal abortion or carrying a baby to term?
The power a judge holds over a pregnant teen is remarkably subjective and often inappropriate. A judge in Toledo, Ohio, denied a waiver to a 17-year-old on the grounds that she “had not had enough hard knocks in her life,” while a judge denied a 15-year-old a bypass after asking the girl what she “would say to the fetus about her decision.”
In 2013, the Nebraska Supreme Court denied an abortion to a 16-year-old, although she had retained a lawyer and navigated the court system, on the grounds that she was “not mature enough to make the decision herself.” Instead of providing an alternative to parental involvement laws for the Nebraska teen—who notably was a ward of the state after her biological parents’ legal rights were terminated due to abuse and neglect—the court decided she was too immature to make the decision to have an abortion but was mature enough to give birth to an unwanted child.
Meanwhile, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the denial of a 17-year-old’s petition because the girl’s testimony felt “rehearsed” and she didn’t show “any emotion.” It’s worth mentioning that the girl had spoken with a number of adults, including her doctor, and had weighed her options. She understood the procedure and had been informed of the risks.
While some girls are denied wavers, others never seek them. Becky Bell, a 17-year-old Indiana girl, went to a Planned Parenthood clinic hoping to schedule an abortion, but was told she would either need consent from her parents or would need to receive a waiver from a judge. Unwilling to speak with her parents out of fear they would be disappointed, and worried they might find out if she went in front of the courts, Becky took matters into her own hands. One Saturday night, Becky told her parents she was going to a party. When she returned home, she complained of feeling ill. A few days later, her parents took her to a hospital, where she died of streptococcus pneumonia. Doctors told Becky’s parents her illness was likely caused by the use of dirty instruments during an abortion.
Some might judge Becky for not attempting to get a waiver, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. Becky’s parents later learned that the judge in their district had never before issued a waiver to a minor seeking an abortion.
Becky’s story is not unusual. The American Medical Association states that: “[b]ecause the need for privacy may be compelling, minors may be driven to desperate measures to maintain the confidentiality of their pregnancies. They may run away from home, obtain a ‘back alley’ abortion, or resort to self-induced abortion. The desire to maintain secrecy has been one of the leading reasons for illegal abortion deaths since… 1973.”
When I was a teen, I made the decision to have an abortion even before I learned about the option of receiving a judicial bypass. Fortunately, I felt comfortable going to juvenile court to request a waiver and I stood in front of a sympathetic, liberal judge. I was also fortunate that my boyfriend was able to borrow money to pay for my procedure. Many teens—especially those in low-income demographics—do not have the means to pay for their abortions or are affected by the restrictive Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision that prohibits Medicaid from paying for abortions unless pregnancy poses a danger to the mother, or in cases or rape or incest.
None of this is to say the process wasn’t emotionally taxing. It was. Both before and after my abortion, I had many sleepless nights, and shared tearful conversations with my boyfriend, doctor, trusted friends, and a social worker at my school. I felt a cascade of emotions that ranged from sadness to anger. But I wasn’t traumatized, and the relief I felt after having the procedure was palpable. I finished high school, took classes at a community college, went on to attend an Ivy League school, and, many years later, when I felt ready to have a child, I gave birth to my beloved daughter.
Today, I’m a mother of a pre-teen girl. Believe me, I’m not in love with the idea of my daughter having sex while she’s a teenager. According to a Guttmacher Institute study, 16 percent of American teens are having sex by age 15, one third by age 16, and nearly half by 17. This means that even after my careful due diligence and sexual education efforts, my daughter might have sex as a teen. Denying that would require a certain amount of unrealistic optimism on my part.
Although the teen pregnancy rate has dropped slightly in the past 20 years, one million American teens still become pregnant each year. Like most other parents, I don’t believe my daughter will ever be one of those teens. It won’t happen. I feel this truth in my bones. Yet… it could. After all, it happened to me.
Researchers have tried to measure the impact of parental involvement requirements on teen pregnancy, abortion, and birth rates. Advocates of these laws claim that teen pregnancy rates have dropped due to increased use of contraception and decreased sexual activity among teens. Yet a recent study in Texas (a state with fairly complete data) revealed that the pregnancy rate among 17-year-olds subject to the state’s parental involvement laws remained unchanged, while birth rates increased. The study’s authors concluded: “Previous studies of parental involvement laws should be interpreted with caution because their methodological limitations have resulted in an overestimation of the fall in abortions and underestimation of the rise in births, possibly leading to the erroneous conclusion that pregnancies decline in response to such laws.”
New York, where I live with my daughter, is one of only five states that doesn’t have parental involvement laws. Despite my decision not to tell my parents about my abortion, it makes my heart ache when I imagine how it would feel to learn that my own daughter had done the same. I know, however, that I’d feel far worse were she put in danger because of my desire to control our communication, or because of parental consent laws.
Soon after Becky Bell’s death, her parents wrote: “All parents would want to know if their daughter was in a situation like Becky’s. In fact, we would have supported the law in our state before we experienced the loss of our daughter. We have been forced to learn in the most painful way imaginable that laws cannot create family communication. We would rather have not known that our daughter had had an abortion, if it meant that she could have obtained the best of care, and come back home safely to us. As much as we would have wanted to help Becky through the crisis, the law did not succeed in forcing her to talk to us about issues she found too upsetting to share with us.”
Teens are safer without laws requiring them to obtain parental consent or a waiver from a judge—a stranger who isn’t even a physician—for a relatively low-risk, non-invasive medical procedure. Lest you think I’m crazy, know that many medical groups also oppose parental involvement, including the Society for Adolescent Medicine, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association. Lawrence Finer, Director of Domestic Research for the Guttmacher Institute, said: “Laws like this can lead to health risks for teens.”
If a parent’s opinion doesn’t keep a daughter safe once she becomes pregnant, then it makes sense that parents focus not only on preventing pregnancy, but also on advocating for new legislation that seeks to protect teen choice by abolishing parental involvement laws.
Not much has changed in the 23 years since I had an abortion as a teenager. While pro-choice activists have concentrated their efforts on ensuring the reproductive rights of adult women, few are fighting alongside teen girls to dismantle harmful and antiquated parental involvement legislation. Our teen daughters need to know that we’re on their side. Rather than commanding control over their bodies, we can push for new policies that would allow them access to abortion without having to jump through hoops that are more about protecting a political agenda than protecting their safety.
I urge legislators to eliminate laws preventing teen choice and, in the words of Becky Bell’s parents, “to pass no laws that will increase the chances that even one desperate girl will feel that her only choice is an illegal abortion.”