The state can't force teen-agers to talk to their parents

Linda Cotton

January 25, 1991|By Linda Cotton

KAREN BELL says that two years ago she absolutely would have voted for the parental consent law that requires teen-agers in Indiana to get their parents' permission to have an abortion.

Bell, who is from Indianapolis, had been a full-time homemaker for 20 years, and parental consent made perfect sense to her. "Of course," she said, "I would have voted for the dumb thing.

"Anyway, I would have laid down my life that if Beck were pregnant she would have come to me."

But Beck didn't. When she discovered she was pregnant, right before her 17th birthday, Becky Bell couldn't face her parents. Not that they wouldn't have been supportive. "That child was my life," Karen says. "She was my best friend."

But sometimes even best friends cannot tell each other their deepest secrets. Becky told her girlfriends that she couldn't hurt her mom and dad -- first, with the revelation that their "good girl" had been having sex with her boyfriend, and then, with the news that she was pregnant.

Indiana's parental consent law does have a judicial bypass provision, which would have allowed Becky to go before a judge and ask that parental consent be waived. But negotiating the judicial bureaucracy is a daunting task even for an adult. For teen-agers, the court system is formidable enough that judicial bypass offers, in reality, no choice at all.

So Becky found a place where she could have an illegal abortion. But they botched it. She died, hemorrhaging in the emergency room. It wasn't until the coroner's report came back that Karen and her husband Bill learned Becky had died as the result of an illegal abortion.

rTC Becky Bell's ordeal shows what common sense dictates: No law can force teen-agers to talk to their parents. And trying to do so merely punishes those girls who cannot.

Nonetheless, Sen. John Cade, a Republican from Anne Arundel County, has introduced a bill similar to Indiana's that requires a parent's permission before a teen-ager would be able to get an abortion in Maryland. The aim of the bill, presumably, is to foster family communication -- which is a laudable enough goal -- and to ensure that a minor gives informed consent for an abortion, another laudable objective. But the question is whether parental consent laws actually achieve those ends. The answer is that, sadly, they don't.

Statistics show that the majority of teen-agers 17 and under do talk to at least one parent before getting an abortion. Among girls 12 to 15, three-quarters do. Those who don't have reasons as diverse as their circumstances: Some fear they will be physically or emotionally abused by alcoholic parents; others are afraid they will be thrown out of the house or that a parent recovering from a divorce or nervous breakdown could not stand the strain of discovering a daughter is pregnant. Some believe, rightly or wrongly, that their parents would not allow them to have an abortion.

Whatever their reasons, mandating communication certainly will not change them. It will merely send frightened teens to back-alley butchers or across state lines -- usually later in their pregnancies when abortion is more dangerous, and more expensive.

An alternative approach, intended as a compromise, is a bilco-sponsored by senators John Pica, Clarence Blount and Walter Baker. It essentially codifies the freedom of choice guaranteed in the Roe vs. Wade ruling, but with the proviso that a parent be notified if a teen-ager wants an abortion, but not required to give permission. The notification bill also differs from the consent bill in that it allows a doctor, rather than a judge, to decide whether the teen-ager is mature enough to make her own decision, or whether parental involvement would not be in the best interest of the minor. But the difference is mostly rhetorical. For teen-agers facing a system they do not understand, having to get permission from a stranger -- be it a judge or a doctor -- is a practically insurmountable barrier.

Pica insists that "the only way to get an abortion rights bill through [the General Assembly] this session, is with a notification provision." Maybe. But if the rights of women over 18 must be protected by denying them to younger women, then calling this an "abortion-rights" bill is a misnomer.

There's a good case to be made that a young woman who is old enough to make decisions that result in pregnancy is old enough to make her own choices about how to resolve her dilemma. But there is a more practical consideration: The Indiana consent law did not succeed in forcing Becky Bell to seek her parents' advice or that of a judge. There is no reason to believe a similar law in Maryland would be any more effective.

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