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?