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.”
Admittedly, I had never thought beyond my own personal dilemma about this issue. That is, the requirement to have parental consent for an abortion. By that I mean that having helped three Daughters through their teenage years, I am very familiar with this debate. As I read of your experience, I couldn’t help but recall this very personal situation in my own life and in the lives of my three Daughters. I had worked very hard to ensure that my Daughters knew and felt confident that they could share all their concerns with me. But no matter how open our relationships with our children are, pregnancy and everything that springs from it is very personal! Everyone, man or woman, has a right to autonomy over their own bodies. Two of the girls found themselves eventually facing this decision. My oldest, had at the age of 15 come to me inform me that she had decided to become sexually active and wanted my blessing to get on birth control. I was so proud both of her decision to be responsible and of the fact that she was sitting in front of me, unafraid and telling me about it! Only one of my Daughters faced this without telling me until about a year after the fact. Her boyfriend’s Mother convinced her to keep it from me and helped her somehow to obtain an abortion without parental consent. I never knew how she did that. The laws in my state are to notify at least one parent or Grandparent. But what if she had no one to turn to? I can’t imagine the gripping fear and anxiety of facing this kind of situation alone. Thank you Melissa for sharing your story, it is very brave. Reading your story forces one to reflect on this issue on another level besides their own life experience with it. The one thing out of the whole article that brought this home to me was that one phrase at the end, “Commanding control over their bodies…” Impact! As I mentioned, I believe we have a right to autonomy over our own bodies, no one, not even a parent should have that right. And no Judge in a courtroom should have it. If I claim the right to make choices for myself, why would I have the right to decisions that affect the bodies of my Daughters?
I was on the fence over this. Glad I don’t have to think about it right now because my Daughters are no longer teenagers, and getting too comfortable in the fact that my two Granddaughters don’t even have boyfriends yet.
So thank you Melissa for bringing this to my attention. Because you just pushed me off my fence. You just helped me see that I should think about it for every teenager who will be faced with this in her life. And thank you for that one phrase, “commanding control over their bodies…” That couldn’t have made a greater impact on me if it had been in bold type!
Thank you for helping me see with this article, the statistics, and the experiences, and for prompting me to learn more about the laws that not only invade a teenage girl’s privacy, but also put them at risk, when they are already in a risky situation.
Great article and very well written Melissa. Thank you again.
Sheila, WOW, are your words powerful. Bottom line: if we believe in our daughters’ autonomy, then we need to allow them to be autonomous and make choices for their own bodies. Abortion policy is regularly in the news, but teen choice is often absent from discourse, which means that teen are both uninformed of the choices they can make, and policies that affect them are rarely reexamined.
Recently I read an article about how even toddlers should be able to say “no” to other kids and adults if they don’t want to be hugged, kissed or patted on the head. I think it’s wonderful that the current trend is to empower young children to take charge of their bodies, but would love to see more conversation about teen girls taking charge of their own bodies (and not only by learning how to say “no” to unwanted attention, but my saying “yes” to health decisions that impact their lives).
Thank you, Sheila, for your comment. I was moved reading about how your daughters felt comfortable coming to you to talk about the decisions they wanted to make about their sexual health, and thought it was especially important that you acknowledged how important was that your daughter (the one who didn’t come to speak with you) was able to access care (even without your consent).
Again, thank you.
Great article! This is a brave writer!
Thank you, Judy! It’s an important topic, and I appreciate your comment.
Thoughtful and powerful, Melissa. Thank you for tackling this important topic. We all want to think our daughters will come to us. But shame and the desire not to let our parents down, are powerful impulses when we’re young. And then there’s trust. Often parents are either caught up in their own dramas, steered by a new spouse’s ideology, or purely don’t respect a child’s right to have a say in their own future. How many kids are forced into college or family businesses because it’s “expected” or because they aren’t permitted to choose otherwise. These same behaviors are often the ones that compell many kids to act out by getting themselves into risky situations their parents can’t control, like substance abuse and becoming sexually active. A dangerous combination. If one can’t talk to one’s parents about not going into the family business–often the most basic fear being loss of parental love–however would one frankly and openly discuss abortion with one’s parents? I hope this important article gets lots of attention. Well done.
Yes, Kim, trust is a big part of it! It took me a long time – well into my adulthood – before realizing that my parents were growing up alongside me. Our agendas were not always the same, but because I was “only a teenager” my voice was often left out of decision-making. Parents feel that they know best – and often, they do. But at the end of the day, parents don’t own their daughters’ bodies, and therefore, power of decision-making must be afforded to the people who do own them: the teens. Thank you, Kim, for your thoughtful comment.
I’m very proud of your candor and honesty tackling this very difficult and controversial subject. You have provided a lot of information and references to both sides of the issue between legal rights and human rights. There is a lot of controversy about abortion but very little information concerning the babies well fair after they are born. I greatly appreciate and respect your bravery in sharing this very personal experience.
Thank you, Charlie. It is a tough, controversial issue! You’re right – I haven’t read a lot about the babies born to women/girls who weren’t able to have abortions (either because of the law, finances, etc.). It would be interesting to learn more about those stories. Again, thank you!
Such an insightful piece, Melissa. Thank you for bravely sharing your own personal narrative to create such an important conversation. I hope that your words are found and thoughtfully explored not just by parents but also by teenagers.
Thank you, Kirsten – I also hope that parents and teens find this piece and that it gives them plenty of food for thought. I appreciate your words – again, thank you.
As a retired Public Health Nurse Practitioner who worked in Family Planning for most of 30 years and had an abortion in my early 20’s, I whole heartedly support teen women having “commanding control over their bodies” Teens while irritating etc are also very aware, thoughtful and able to make informed decisions.Thanks for writing this.
Thank you, Kathe. I’m glad to have the voice of a health professional weigh in, and also am glad to read comments from people who also believe that teens are capable of making informed decisions for their bodies. Again, thank you.
Kathe, I love that you found this piece via the essays and I think your comment is really thought provoking. I agree that teens are thoughtful and able to make decisions on their own, and I love how Melissa so clearly sets the stage for this argument. She’s done a stellar job here. AGA
You’re right – Kathe’s comment is thought provoking! Thank you for your comment also about the argument I set up – feeling humbled and happy to have this article published. I think it’s important, and I think it’s giving people a few (measured/data-driven) ideas to chew on!
Melissa, thank you for writing this important essay. I admire your honesty in sharing your own experiences. Thank you, also, for providing important context about the subjective and inconsistent ways in which these laws are applied. Like you, and like Becky Bell’s parents, if my daughter were ever to be in this situation I would want her to come to me, but I would much rather she be safe than have my consent. Thanks for helping push the conversation forward.
Laurence – thank you for your comment. As I wrote in the article, I hope that my daughter will continue to come to me in the future concerning her health choices, but my number one concern is her safety, and therefore, my consent shouldn’t have to be a factor. My heart goes out to the parents of Becky Bell (and other parents, friends and family who have been in similar situations). I also hope this pushes the conversation forward!
This is a very well thought out argument for choice for teens. I’ve always struggled with the idea of abortion: I’ve never had to face that choice in my own life, but have accompanied more than a dozen friends–even when we were teenagers–to get abortions, both legal and not legal. Sometimes my young friends had a parent or relative who supported them, but most often, they did not. The ones who told their parents or whose parents found out later were often ridiculed and humiliated. Several of these friends ran away from home soon after and got involved in things which were not good for them, others tried to kill themselves. I have very conflicted feelings about abortion, and I approach it with a heaviness. But I believe in choice and I believe in choice for teens as well. I have seen the impact of what not having that choice is, and it can be pretty terrifying. And certainly, on my travels, teen choice is not even an option in most places I have been..let alone choice at all. One has to start somewhere, and I’m glad it is starting here with your piece. Let’s hope it makes a difference, one wave at a time.
A very nice article.
I think this is a serious issue, and therefore, ought to be approached with a tremendous amount of thought. You’re right – many women and teen girls globally aren’t afforded any choice, and yes, it is terrifying to think of them as being so unprotected by policy and society. In the states, I’m glad that the conversation about abortion is ongoing, and hope it widens to more regularly include teens. I have friends who are just starting to tackle this issue overseas, and commend their efforts. I appreciate you weighing in and value your words – thank you.
I’ve not had to face this myself, but as the mom of a tween, I’m worried about these very issues. Thanks for the clear, well-researched information and for telling your own story. Brava!
Thank you, Wandering Educators. I think teen choice is an important issue even for those people who have not had to face abortion – especially for those of us who are parents! I appreciate your comment!
Absolutely fantastic piece. Thank you for sharing your story and putting it in context.
I was reminded while reading the article, of some of the arguments about personhood as an anti-abortion argument. It seems a little convoluted that the people who argue for such things also are part of the parental notification movement (as it’s all within the pro-life movement, all activities designed to prevent women from having abortions.) Yet here is this 15 year old person…old enough to make the decision to have sex, old enough to manage the consequences of that decision, being told “no, you’re not mature enough. Tell your parents.”
I’m not sure I’m making any sense, but it was a stark contrast, to me anyway. (FWIW, I am solidly pro-choice, even though I hate the idea of abortion. Until women are in a position to completely control their reproductive status at all times – either through technology/medical advancements or new social contracts – we cannot remove abortion as an option for those facing unwanted pregnancies. I work in lactation support and can resoundingly say that new mothers face enough challenges today. Adding in the challenge of a baby too soon, a mom still working on the basics of her education and unable to support herself (and don’t get me started on the lack of affordable childcare were mom to be in a position to have a job that would support her and her infant.) — it’s too much.)
Yes, I also have a problem with teens being seen as too young to make important choices about their own bodies. Recently I took my daughter to an event and she was charged the “adult price.” I had to laugh – the marketing is so different depending on the industry – teens are adults if someone stands to make cash off it, but they are children when adults feel that their “authority” is usurped. The idea that an adult knows better about what is best for a teen’s body and emotional consequences of abortion is absurd. Believe me, I’m also not keen on the idea of abortion – but goodness, am I thankful that it is an option! There’s a lot of value in wondering about what might happen if a woman (or teen girl) isn’t allowed to have an abortion and is forced to have an unborn child. Again, thank you for reading, Karen, and for your valuable comment!
Thank you for sharing your story, Melissa. I was 16.5 years old when I learned I was pregnant and contemplated all options available. While I read your article I was transported back to that difficult time in my life. I cannot fathom what would have happened if I wasn’t allowed to make my own decision and needed someone else’s consent (i.e., parents, court, judge) about my body, my life. A couple of days ago I briefly talked about my experience with one of my roommates. After our conversation, I thought that a teenager should have rights related to whatever decision she ultimately chooses regarding birth control. The subject is still raw even after 34 years and will be something I write about in the future. Hopefully, your article will create some healthy dialogue among others regarding teenage choice and rights.
And thank you, Terry, for sharing your story. I think you’re right – teens should have rights over their reproductive rights. I look forward to reading what you write about this subject in the future – getting the word out is so important.
Years ago, I would have argued hard in favour of parental notification laws… but now, as the mother of three teenagers and a tween, I agree with you… that teens should have the right to make their own decisions about their bodies. My daughter is an adult now, but as she passed through these dangerous years we talked relentlessly about everything, but especially about choices surrounding her sexuality. My sons, who are right behind her, we are talking just as fast and hard with… these are issues that affect boys almost as much as girls, the responsibility is (should be) shared. We have to talk to our kids but, more importantly, we have to listen… and we have to be willing to step back and let them make their own choices. It’s not just in this arena that we legislate against our teens. Well done, Melissa.
You hit the nail on the head: “we have to listen… and we have to be willing to step back and let them make their own choices.” This isn’t to say that it’s easy to give them their autonomy, but when the reality is that sometimes, insisting on parental involvement is just more dangerous than giving them the option to involve parents. Thank you for your comment – I’m fascinated that as your children became teens/tweens that you changed your view on parental notification – was this change due to seeing them make responsible choices, or did something else prompt your change in mindset? Again, thanks!
The change occurred because of my own growth more than theirs. It would still be my deep hope that they would feel they could come to me with anything, but when the chips are down what matters is that they can get safe care and that they have choices. Which is what I would have wanted as a teen.
Jenn, I love this: “the change occurred because of my own growth more than theirs.” Just goes to show that we’re always learning, at every age.
Thank you for writing this powerful and important piece. I would like to think that my daughter would come to me for my consent if she became pregnant, but she shouldn’t have to. Control over our bodies is a fundamental right. I consider myself well informed, but I didn’t know about the judicial bypass as you described it. Great job!
YES: “Control over our bodies is a fundamental right.”
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