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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
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
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
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
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
** 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
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
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
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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