Parental consent laws are reasonable, except when they are not

Question: If your daughter came to you and said: “I’m pregnant. I want to get an abortion.” What would be your reaction? Would you help her? Would she feel safe coming to you with this issue? If you answered yes, kudos to you because some young girls cannot turn to their parents or guardians—even the best of them—for help in this situation.

Parental consent laws seem perfectly legitimate on the surface. Parents should have the right to oversee the medical care of their under-age children. Except that there are situations in which parents or guardians should not possess that right. There are valid reasons a pregnant preteen or teenage girl would not consult the adults closest to her.

For example:

1.)   A victim of incest might find herself pregnant by a father or a brother. Is she expected to go to her abuser or even her mother (who oftentimes doesn’t want to admit incest has happened or is happening) and seek help? How could she? There is no trust in that relationship.

2.)  Similar to victims of incest are those who are physically abused by their parents. Do you think a girl who gets knocked around for coming in late or forgetting to do her homework is going to turn to those same parents for assistance and guidance if she is pregnant?

3.) Some parents put the fear of God in their children, saying if they get pregnant out of wedlock, “you better not come to me,” “I’ll kick you out of the house,” or “you will be a total disgrace to this family.” That teenage girl would be afraid to open up to her parents. They put the threat out there, why would she believe they might react or feel otherwise?

4.)  There are also times when a child cannot muster the courage tell her parents or ask for help no matter how great they are because the thought of disappointing them is agonizing. There are just some things one doesn’t want to tell her parents—believe it or not.

Aside from the above list, a minor’s right to privacy regarding her health care decisions has been established in federal and state laws. Parental consent laws prevent a minor from making her own healthcare decision to terminate a pregnancy due to her immaturity, yet other laws allow and trust that same immature minor to make other healthcare decisions, even those regarding her prenatal care as well as that of her baby’s without her parents’ permission.

Parents who would force their daughter to carry a baby to term before she is old enough to properly care for that baby or force her to carry to term then give the baby up for adoption, are doing her no favors—emotionally, physically, and financially. Girls who bear children at very young ages fall behind in school because they often drop out or delay graduation, which also delays any higher education goals they may have. This also affects their earnings potential over their lifetimes. Girls and women who have control over their reproductive lives, stay in school and do better financially, which is why access to affordable—even free—birth control is important. It reduces unexpected pregnancies, which should be the goal.

Who has ever included in their hopes and dreams to have an abortion? I doubt any young girl. However, abortion should remain safe, legal, accessible, and affordable. That boys and men are largely excluded from this conversation is disheartening. It’s always the woman’s responsibility to control herself, she is the one at fault when an illegitimate pregnancy occurs. It does take two to create a life.

For millennia, women have been the sex that has suffered the scorn and punishment for being unwed mothers. They have been put to death, exiled, or shunned in their communities—shockingly, it still happens in some places. Women cannot hide a pregnancy. Men too easily have been able to deny paternity (at least until recently with the advent of DNA testing), protecting themselves from any negative repercussions. Men have been largely immune from the harsh judgments, criticisms, and punishments that women have endured. Women were labeled sluts and whores (still are) while guys walked away, their reputations unsullied. No woman, regardless of age, should be a slave to her biology.

Women bear the health risks associated with pregnancy. In addition to varying degrees of morning sickness, the body changes during gestation. Many women endure incontinence, constipation, swollen legs, varicose veins, vaginal pain and discharge, and back pain, to name a few. Even today, women die in childbirth.  In a 2012 study, researchers found that the risk of death associated with childbirth is 14 times higher than that with abortion. Women also lose income and advancement opportunities because they take leave from their jobs to care for newborns (and most want to do that, as do some men, to be fair).

Furthermore, women have a much higher stake in reproduction. Men dispense millions upon millions of sperm throughout their lifetime. The average female will have 300,000 or so eggs left in her ovaries by the time she hits puberty, but of those only about 400 will make it to the ovulation stage throughout her child-bearing years.

Still, most underage pregnant girls do involve their parents in their decision to terminate a pregnancy. That’s good. Sadly, for those who are without a trustworthy, caring adult in their life, parental consent laws establish barriers that delay the inevitable, resulting in later-term abortions which are more complicated and expensive. Girls may also seek care outside the legitimate medical community with unlicensed abortion practitioners in unsafe conditions, which could lead to death. We can and must do better by our girls.

Further recommended reading:

8 Myths that Fuel the Assault on Abortion Rights  (Note: The article only addresses 7 myths; the title is incorrect.)

Below are some blog posts about parental consent laws on the National Women’s Law Centers site:

Texas Activist Speaks About Proposed Abortion Restrictions

Illinois parental notification law is ill-advised

The “Teen Endangerment Act” Prevents Teens From Getting the Support and Care They Need When They Need It Most