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Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Getting back to the series of tough questions for pro-choicers:

Question the Third: In many states, a teenager can have an abortion without her parents’ consent or knowledge but cannot get an aspirin from the school nurse without parental authorization. Do you support any restrictions or parental notification regarding abortion access for minors?

First, because it has to be said: this is an awful analogy. I’m not sure why schools won’t give out aspirin without parental authorization – maybe out of concern for liability, or an overreach on some kind of prescription drug policy, or some combination of the two? It’s idiotic in any event. But it’s not like teenagers can’t get aspirin if they want it. Anyone with the money can buy it at my neighborhood pharmacy, or at the corner bodega for that matter.

But this question of parental notification is actually one of the few “tough questions” that really gave me pause. I generally know what I believe in, but I’m less skilled out working out how to balance these ideals when they conflict. And this is definitely one of those occasions.

Generally, I’m a big fan of what I call parental autonomy. I get very nervous when the government, the schools or anyone else tells parents how to raise their children. It’s not that I believe parents have some sort of ownership over their children; I absolutely believe children should have rights to control their own bodies and lives to the extent that their mature enough to exercise them. But I also believe that parents generally love their kids and have an interest in doing what they believe is in their children’s best interests. Not always, of course, but as a general rule I’m a big fan of letting parents take the lead in looking out for their teenager’s best interests.

So I’m hesitant to give the government permission to override a parent’s decision about what’s in the child’s best interests. The parent knows the child better than Uncle Sam does, and the parent’s also concerned with a specific child. The government is looking at generalities. But this isn’t the same thing as saying the parents’ wishes or morals should trump the kid. Children, and in particular teenage children, aren’t tools parents should use to get what they want. They’re human beings and have a right to make decisions that affect them. But I also believe that that teenagers are still growing up, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to make adult decisions all by themselves.

So, bringing this back to the question at hand, should parents have to agree before their teen daughter can get an abortion? For me it comes down to why the parent hasn’t agreed. I definitely think teens need guidance when deciding whether to have a complicated medical procedure. They need independent advisers who really have their best interests at heart. I’d hope the parents could do this, and in an ideal world, if the teen didn’t have parental approval and help I’d want to know why. Many teens will be afraid what their parents will think, so I’d want to know: is this fear reasonable? Are they getting an abortion because they’re overwhelmed, and are unreasonably scared of telling a parent?

Or is the fear reasonable? I’d still like the teenager to have some kind of guidance because this is an important + complicated question, and this person should absolutely have the teen’s best interest at heart. (I’m not suggesting crisis pregnancy “counselors” or anything of the sort.) But does it need to be the parent? I think in my ideal world, I’d definitely want to know why it can’t be them – not in a judgmental sense, but because this is a big red flag to me about possible abuse. But I don’t think I’d want to see teenagers need to get parental buy-in. The reason is simple: humans, even teenagers, own themselves. As they grow up children are better equipped to take control over their choices. By the time they’re teenagers I think they definitely have a right to decide what will happen to their bodies. They know their beliefs and priorities. I think it’s reasonable to require teenagers to have some help here putting their values into practice. But should a parent be able to overrule their teen’s choices? That crosses into the parent owning the child, which I’m not comfortable with.

I wonder, though – is this what parents are concerned about when they want parental notification? I can imagine, if I had a kid and she got an abortion behind my back, that I’d be upset with the doctor who gave the abortion. I’d be hurt that my daughter didn’t feel like she could trust me and sorry she had gone through that alone. But with the abortion doctor, I think I’d feel something had been taken away from me. My suspicion is, I think that – as the parent – I’d think the doctor had taken away my authority. This is a really natural assumption to make but I think it’s the wrong thing. No one, parents included, has the right to make decisions for someone else, at least once that person is capable of making a decision. Anything else treats the person as less than human. So if a parent thinks he should be the one making a decision for his daughter, and the daughter is old enough to make this distinction, there’s something wrong here. The parent is taking away the daughter’s right to choose what happens to her own body, which seems wrong. It makes her a tool or a slave rather than a person.

All of which is a very long way of saying: I don’t think a parent should be deciding whether a teenage daughter gets an abortion. Her body, her decision, her choice. The only possible exception I see is if the daughter isn’t old enough to be up to making this kind of choice. I’d definitely encourage the teenager to involve her parents, both because she could use the help and support and also for the sake of their future relationship. But I don’t think this is the kind of thing the law should be deciding. I’m sympathetic to parents here but I think this drive to know God’s nature is misplaced.

Of course I’m not a parent, so maybe I’m not appreciating why parents think parental notification is so important. What do you think? Should teen mothers need their parents’ approval before getting an abortion?


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 4th, 2012 01:58 am (UTC)
I say no, because the stakes are so very high. The majority of cases are not this dire, but there are parents out there who have thrown out, abused, or even killed their daughters over this. There are teenagers who are pregnant by a parent. If a no-notifications-needed policy saves even one life, it's worthwhile - and rest assured, it's saved many.

Much more common are the cases where parents will stop at nothing to prevent an abortion that the daughter desperately wants (or force one that the daughter doesn't want, for that matter). I think the wishes of the person who is actually pregnant should always prevail, regardless of the power someone else may hold over her. Parents hold a great deal of power over their minor children, and this is one case where I think those minors actually deserve some protection from their parents, should they feel that they need it.

It's not a matter of the "government" taking the place of the parents--after all, the "government" does not pressure the girl in either direction. All this does is help to ensure that the girl is able to make HER choice in as free and safe a manner as possible.

The overwhelming majority of girls do involve their parents in the decision, by their own choice. This law exists to protect those who simply cannot, because it's too dangerous for them.
Dec. 4th, 2012 02:51 am (UTC)
That's definitely where I'm leaning. I understand why the parents feel something is being taken away from them, and I'm sympathetic - but I also think they're wrong in this case.

I do think teen mums should have guidance in how to get the procedures they want (or avoid the ones they don't). It makes me sad that those teens who don't get it from their parents are left a bit stranded. But I also don't think a law would help people in those situations.
Dec. 4th, 2012 03:32 am (UTC)
My gut reaction is a flat "no".

I think, if a parent wants to be included in a decision like that, it's up to them to create an environment in which their daughter feels safe talking to them about it.

I just don't see any way to legally require that parents are notified without exposing daughters to dangerous levels of coercion and abuse.

I might feel differently if the prevailing culture and morality were towards abortions, and the thought of bringing a child into the world required more soul-searching and risk of public censure than the thought of having an abortion.
Dec. 4th, 2012 06:21 am (UTC)
Part of my concern is that I think teenagers deserve protection to help them make the right choice. It's part of being a teenager. IMO that age is about making your own decisions but having someone there to help you learn how to make them smartly.

That said, I don't see how a law would help with that. The more I read comments and reply to them, the more convinced I am that this isn't a problem with a legal solution, if it's a problem at all.
Dec. 4th, 2012 04:24 am (UTC)
I have to say, I think that for the most part, a child's parents should be notified at the very least, when their child may be undergoing a medical procedure--whether it is abortion or birth control.

As I said, "for the most part". I do not believe that laws should be slanted in favor of the exceptions--the majority of parents do love their kids and want what's best for them.

HOWEVER, I DO think that there should be a built-in safeguard. If a child tells her doctor that she actually fears her parents' reactions, then an advocate should be provided--someone who can talk with her, advise her, see her through getting court permission if the parents might be abusive and deny her what she needs, or if she decides to tell them, someone who can stand by her and help her give the news in a non-judgmental way.

Think of it this way: while most modern abortions are relatively safe, they are not perfectly safe, and many birth control methods can have bad side effects. How would you like to be the doctor who has to tell the parent why their kid is in the Emergency Room?

Anyway, that's my opinion on that particular subject. But I only have a son not a daughter. I have a feeling that I might feel even more strongly if I did have a daughter.

Dec. 4th, 2012 06:47 am (UTC)
I'm not crazy about building a system around exceptions, either. Part of that depends on how common of an exception it is. I'm a thirty-year-old virgin myself so this is not my lived experience, but I suspect there are areas of the country where a lot of girls have parents who don't want to talk about birth control and would certainly resist an abortion. And it makes me nervous to say there should be a law setting up hoops for the teen to jump through. Even if you offer exceptions.

The question of informed consent does make this trickier, though. If the law says a teenage girl is not legally able to agree to (say) immediate appendicitis and that she needs a legal adult to consent for her, it seems odd to think she wouldn't need an adult to consent. Abortion is a moral issue but it's also a medical one with health risks that a teenage girl may not fully understand. So if we're prepared to say a teenager can decide to have an abortion on her own, it stands to reason she should be able to consent to the appendicitis, too. It doesn't seem consistent here. (As an interesting sidenote: poking around online, I came across this set of guidelines for a Philadelphia hospital saying a teenager was medically emancipated if she had a child. I don't know how widespread that is, though.) I understand your concern about having to notify parents in the case of an emergency - that seems like a truly awful way to get that news, and that's one of the reasons why I think teens should be encouraged to tell their parents, morally. I'm still a bit skeptical about the legal requirement, though.

Btw, this is what I was talking about with different ideals conflicting. I want the parents involved if they'll support the teen as I think being a good parent requires. But it does bump up against other ideals like the ideal that no one should have to justify their medical decision, or the fact that quite often when it comes to abortion, parents might make the situation worse rather than better.

ON your idea of the acception... the thing that bothers me about that is the way making it an exception affects psychologies. I know in countries where abortion is only available to save the mother's life you have mothers dying because ther'es a subjective eleemnt in whether the abortion is truly medically necessary. (How sure do you need to be that the mother will die if you do nothing?) It's a tricky situation, to be sure.
Dec. 4th, 2012 01:58 pm (UTC)
Abortion is a moral issue but it's also a medical one with health risks that a teenage girl may not fully understand. So if we're prepared to say a teenager can decide to have an abortion on her own, it stands to reason she should be able to consent to the appendicitis, too

Exactly. I think what convinced me on this was many years ago hearing about a young teen who was being raised by a single father. She was not afraid of him, but too embarrassed to talk to him about birth control.

She was rushed to the hospital with what her terrified father thought was appendicitis or something else of that sort, only to find out after the fact that it was a serious infection from an IUD which could have been even more serious.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )



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