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A pregnant woman's constitutional right to choose between childbirth and abortion was established in 1973 by the Supreme Court's landmark _Roe v. Wade_ ruling. All women, including those under 18, are entitled to a safe, legal abortion. But in many states, a young woman may have a very difficult time exercising that right because laws require that she first notify her parents or obtain their consent.
Of the more than one million teenage pregnancies that occur in the United States each year, over 80 percent are unintended. Nearly all pregnant teens are unwed, and some 40 percent of them choose abortion.
Ideally, a teenager should be able to tell her parents about her pregnancy, obtain their love and support and arrive at critical decisions about her future through family discussions. The majority of pregnant teenagers do tell at least one parent about their pregnancies. However, some teenagers cannot tell their parents. Some are members of broken families; some are victims of incest or other forms of family abuse; some have run away from home, often for good reason.
The need to reinforce family relationships is the reason most often cited to justify state laws requiring parental notification or consent before abortion. But such laws are unnecessary for stable and supportive families, and they are ineffective and cruel for unstable, troubled families. Such laws cannot transform abusive families into supportive ones, nor can they reduce the alarmingly high rate of teenage pregnancy. Instead, they only add to the crushing problems faced by pregnant teenagers. They create delays that increase the medical risks of abortion and effectively eliminate the option of abortion for many minors. Tragically, those minors in greatest need of confidential medical care are often the very ones whose access to care is delayed.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes parental consent and notification laws on th grounds that they infringe upon minors' constitutional rights and serve no useful purpose. To prevent unwanted pregnancy from being a dangerous condition for teenagers, we must ensure that young women have access to confidential counseling, contraception and abortion services, as well as prenatal care. At stake are young women's lives, safety, health and dignity. Here are bthe ACLU's answers to questions frequently asked by the public about the reproductive rights of minors.
** How many states have passed laws that restrict teenagers' access to abortion?
Thirty-one states have passed legislation as of 1989, restricting teenagers' access to abortion. These laws require teenagers under 18 to either notify their partents before seeking an abortion or obtain parental consent. Some states do not currently enforce the laws because they have been ruled unconstitutional by a federal or state court, or they resemble laws declared unconstitutional.
Eleven states continue to enforce parental notification or consent laws, and others are considering enacting new laws. ** How do these laws work?
The laws vary. Some states require a physician or physician's agent to notify at least one parent of a minor seeking abortion either in person, by telephone or in writing. Other states require a physician or his/her agent to obtain parental consent. Health care providers who fail to meet state requirements can lose their licenses to practice or even face criminal penalties.
** What's the difference between a consent and a notification law?
PARENTAL CONSENT laws require one parent or both parents to give written permission before their daughter can obtain an abortion. PARENTAL NOTIFICATION requires that one or both parents be notified in advance of their daughter's abortion. Although notification laws technically do not permit parents to veto their daughter's decision, some states either require that one parent sign a form or impose a waiting period between the notification and the abortion. While consent and notification requirements differ, the result is the same: Young women's abortions are delayed or obstructed because of governmental interference.
** What's wrong with parental notification or consent laws?
Parental notification or consent laws can expose a teenager from an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional family to emotional trauma and physical danger, and many young women who avoid telling their parents about their plain to terminate an unwanted pregnancy come from such familes.
Courts have found that teenagers who want to keep their pregnancies a secret almost always have sound reasons. And family counseling experts have testified that forced communication frequently has disastrous results. Indeed, where abortion is concerned, privacy can be a life or death matter for teenagers. Confidentiality has also proven crucial to the effective delivery to minors of several other health care services, including treatment for venereal disease and drug and alcohol abuse, prenatal care and contraception. Minors often shun such services if they fear that their privacy will not be respected. Thus, most states have passed laws _guaranteeing_ a minor's right to receive confidential care in these areas.
** Whatever parents' reactions might be, it's _their_ daughter--so don't they have the right to be involved?
No. Although parents have interests in their children's well-being, in the case of pregnancy a teenager's privacy rights must be paramount. When there is reason to expect an extremely abusive parental reaction to a young woman's unplanned pregnancy, her right to privacy must come first since she is in the best position to know whether she is in danger. A legislature that is unfamiliar with a young woman's particular situation is _not_ in a position to force her to involve her parents.
** What types of family situations lead teenagers to seek a confidential abortion?
The situations are well documented and surprisingly common. Some teenagers fear that a parent will respond to the news of her pregnancy with physical or sexual abuse. Sometimes, the news could place both a mother and daughter at risk of violence by an enraged father. Some young women fear the news will exacerbate a parent's psychiatric or physical illness, drug or alcohol abuse, or troubled relationships with other family members. Some teenagers are runaways and dare not risk returning to their troubled homes.
** Can a teenager, suddenly faced with the choice between childbirth and abortion, really make a responsible decision?
Yes. The American Psychological Association has found that minors are usually able to make intelligent, informed decisions about pregnancy. Even young women from severely troubled families often show great maturity and sensitivity when seeking confidential health services. During one abortion rights trial, clinic and court personnel testified that minors accurately assess their family circumstances and base their decisions on mature analysis and judgment. In any event, doctors are required to obtain informed consent from every patient facing surgery, which ensures that an abortion would not be performed on any woman incapable of giving consent.
** Don't laws restricting abortion also contain alternatives for mature minors or those who fear parental reprisals?
Yes. Most state laws requiring parental notification or consent allow a pregnant minor to go to court and request permission for a confidential abortion (that is without parental involvement). But this process usually requires a teenager to make an appointment with the court, travel some distance, and either find an attorney or plead her own case before one or more court officials. This procedure, called a judicial bypass, is costly and often humiliating and traumatizing. Teenagers must reveal detailed personal information to as many as 20 or more strangers on staff in the court system. In small communities, word may get back to parents, thus defeating the purpose of the bypass, which is to ensure privacy. This anxiety- producing judicial process is a heavy burden to place on young women who are simply seeking health services. Another problem is that the bypass discriminates against the poor. Young women who lack financial resources and supportive families -- that is, those most in need of help -- are the least likely to be able to navigate the complicated bypass process. For such teenagers, the complexities and delays involved may cancel out the option of safe and legal abortion. ** Aren't legal delays justified when a teenager might risk physical and emotional harm by having an abortion?
Actually, delays increase the risk of harm. The longer a teenager waits to terminate a pregnancy, the greater the risk to her health. Furthermore, childbirth is more risky at all stages of pregnancy than abortion. Statistics compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and other sources indicate that the risk of death from childbirth is, on average, 24 times higher than the risk of death from abortion at up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Teenagers are more likely than adults to suffer medical complications attributable to childbirth. Access to legal abortion in the United States has dramatically improved women's health.
Abortion is not only one of the safest surgical procedures available, it is generally safer for teenagers than for adults. Moreover, a recent government study found that unmarried, sexually active teenage girls who chose abortion experienced no emotional damage; rather, they gained a sense of control over their lives.
** What are the consequences, besides increased health risks, of restricting teens' access to abortion?
Laws that restrict access to abortion by requiring parental involvement increase teenage birth rates. For example, according to testimony in the reproductive freedom case, Hodgson u Minnesota, the Minneapolis birthrate rose 38.4 percent among mothers aged 15 to 17 after enforcement of a parental notification law. The birthrate for 18 to 19 year-old women, who were not affected by the law, rose only .3 percent during the same period. Having little education, few skills and responsibility for a child they may not have wanted, teenage mothers and their children are seven times more likely to slide into poverty.
According to national estimates, children born to teenage mothers in 1987 will receive more than $5.5 billion in federal welfare payments over a 20-year period. And because children born to teenagers are often unwanted, those children may suffer severe psychological and educational disadvantages. As for the minors themselves, their entire adult lives are often limited, if not ruined, by government laws that effectively force them into motherhood.
** Do restrictions on minors affect the reproductive choices of other women?
Yes, abortion restrictions directed at minors affect the reproductive rights of all women. Those rights are rooted in the privacy principle -- that is, choices about childbearing are personal, private and none of the government's business. When government invades the realm of privacy to limit the reproductive freedom of teenagers it undermines the privacy principle and threatens the privacy rights, not only of all women, but of all Americans.
** What can be done to provide genuine help for teenagers and, thus, reduce their need for abortion?
States can and should provide confidential reproductive health services and counseling programs that are accessible to teenagers before they become pregnant. These programs should dispense candid information about sexuality, reproduction, contraception, and the importance of family support and communication. Such programs could not only reduce the number of unwanted teen pregnancies, but they could also strengthen family bonds and prevent family crises that are precipitated by teenage pregnancies. Most important, a teenager should be afforded the security of knowing she can assume the adult role of motherhood if and when she, not the government, chooses. Reproductive freedom--including the right to confidential contraception, abortion and prenatal care services--is essential to this goal. Intrusive state laws that claim to encourage family communication, while clearly undermining the best interests of families, ill serve teenagers. Those laws interfere with the right of private decisionmaking and do nothing to stem the high rate of unwanted teenage pregnancies.
The ACLU, in cooperation with other organizations, will continue to provide legislative advocacy and information to the public, aimed at securing reproductive freedom for all women. This includes minors, who are entitled to the same rights of privacy guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution.
The American Civil Liberties Union
132 West 43rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10036
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