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In abortion politics, as in any proper American home, father knows best. Unless, of course, he doesn’t know at all.
That a father (or mother) could be left out of the abortion loop is sufficiently disturbing to have produced a barrage of parental involvement laws in states across the country. Thirty-four states currently require minors under the age of 18 to either notify or obtain the permission of one or both of their parents before they may legally terminate a pregnancy. This legislation—much of which has been enacted in the last decade—ostensibly reduces the number of abortions by promoting responsibility in young adults and by involving caring families in what would otherwise be a cold and lonely procedure.
The effectiveness of parental consent and notification laws—long taken for granted by supporters of such legislation—has recently come under question. In a study conducted by The New York Times, investigators found that six states that have recently enacted laws requiring either parental notification or consent saw no consistent drop in abortion rates. The study examined state health department records from Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, uncovering “a scattering divergent of divergent trends,” according to the newspaper. While in Virginia the number of abortions obtained by those under 18 eventually declined, in Arizona, Idaho, and Tennessee, the abortion rate among pregnant minors actually rose after such laws were enacted.
The Times’ study is not without its critics, but it is without particularly compelling ones. Writing in the National Review, Michael J. New offered a different analysis of data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control, arguing that abortion rates among minors did in fact fall in the six states that the Times examined, in some instances by more than 30 percent. Unfortunately, New failed to consider the impact of parental notification laws in light of otherwise declining abortion rates among teenagers. Instead, he elected to pass off a long-term trend as evidence of the recent impact of parental involvement laws.
The rather narrow Times’ study is hardly the final word on the effectiveness of these laws. Nevertheless, it brings an important aspect of the reproductive rights debate to the fore at a particularly decisive and divisive moment. Moreover, it offers, albeit counter-intuitively, the opportunity for moderation and cooperation between pro-life and pro-choice groups.
To most observers, parental consent and notification laws offer scant opportunity for cooperation. Many in the pro-choice community consider these laws to be, in the words of Students for Choice Co-Director Rebecca P. Buckwalter ’08, “a symptom of the attack on reproductive rights, testament to widespread efforts to erode choice.” This view is hardly off the mark—many pro-life advocates have made the restriction of abortion their ultimate goal—but it ignores that supporters of parental involvement requirements generally have more immediate and agreeable ends in mind. Meghan E. Grizzle ’07, President of Harvard Right to Life, articulated three primary objectives of these laws: to foster “more interaction between parents and their children,” to “drastically reduce the number of teenagers who have abortions,” and to minimize teenage pregnancy.
These three ends should stand at the core of any effort to formulate effective bipartisan social policy. But the Times study, along with a thorough analysis of the laws’ unintended consequences, indicates that this legislation is not a sensible means of attaining these critical ends.
Even if, as New believes, abortion rates decline more quickly in particular states because of parental involvement laws, these supposed benefits would probably only exist on paper. When abortion rates in one state fall upon the enactment of such laws, Dr. Ted Joyce of Baruch College has found, the decline is “matched by an increase in minors getting abortions out of state.”
Parental involvement requirements are not only ineffective; they are also dangerous. Teenagers unable to confer with their parents must secure a court waiver of parental consent, called a “judicial bypass.” This process almost invariably requires two to four weeks to complete. After the first trimester—when a delay of only a few days can vastly ”increase the risks involved in the procedure,” according to the American Medical Association—a month-long postponement is hardly conscionable.
Notification and consent laws also fail to meet the aim of involving families more closely and responsibly in reproductive decisions. Children of strong and supportive families are unlikely to exclude their parents from such a critical a decision, leaving those in troubled families most likely to be affected by these laws. Unstable households already face tremendous challenges; forcing a confrontation over abortion is hardly the best way to strengthen an insecure family.
To achieve a real reduction in teen abortion rates, activists from both pro-choice and pro-life camps ought to turn away from ineffective, damaging parental involvement stipulations and search instead for efficacious and socially responsible policies that can serve their common interest. Instead of ignoring sex—only focusing on the before and after—they ought to couple abstinence-based education with wide-scale instruction on safer sex and make emergency contraception—which prevents the need to terminate a pregnancy—more widely available to those under 18. To ensure that “abortion is not the only economically feasible option” for impoverished women, advocates from both sides should also join Grizzle in demanding “that more resources be provided to pregnant women.” And to ensure that parents are involved in the lives of their children, they must support efforts to strengthen American families by mitigating the dual burdens of poverty and inequality. Activists cannot simply gloss over these structural issues in favor of those more easily legislated against and expect anything more than superficial change.
By repealing parental involvement laws and instead addressing the social conditions that drive minors to seek abortions without parental consent, Americans on all sides of the political fence can effect a positive change and inject some cooperation and propriety—without paternalism—into a tumultuous and immobile debate.
Paul R. Katz ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Hurlbut Hall.
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