Quayle Highlights the Paradoxes of Abortion


July 31, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- Spare me the Quayle jokes. This story is not small potatoes. The vice president spoke from his heart and had his head handed to him.

Last week, Dan Quayle was asked what he would do if his daughter came to him as a pregnant adult. He said, ''I would counsel her and talk to her and support her on whatever decision she made.'' For once he sounded like a father instead of a candidate with a politically correct right-to-life tape on automatic replay.

But he also sounded like a counselor at a Planned Parenthood clinic, a notion that had the whole country smirking. Was he a closet advocate of a woman's right to decide? A lot of folk yelled, ''Gotcha!''

Next came Marilyn to say that if this same daughter gets pregnant now at 13, ''she'll take the child to term.'' Would she make that decision for her daughter? ''We will make it with her.''

Poor Corinne Quayle's teen-age reproductive system became a subject of intra-family discussion and public debate. But the dispute between Dan and Marilyn was blown out of proportion.

The apparent disagreement wasn't about Corinne's behavior but about her age. When Corinne's 18, she can have an abortion with Dad's support. While she's 13, she'll have a baby by Mom's order.

Before you say that this is more Danfoolery, let me remind you that this is how upside-down, inside-out the abortion issue has become.

On the one hand, most Americans agree that a 20-year-old is more equipped for motherhood than a 13-year-old. On the other hand, we are making it harder for 13-year-olds to get abortions than their elders.

Before Mr. Quayle's now-famous quote about supporting an adult daughter's choice, he rattled off the standard argument in favor of laws restricting a young daughter's right to abortion without parental consent. ''My daughter,'' he said, invoking Corinne again, ''if she wants to take an aspirin at school, she has to call and get permission. And if she wants to have an abortion, she doesn't.''

His argument about parents and daughters resonates widely in our country and not just among Quayle supporters. The idea that our 13- or 16-year-old daughters would face a crisis alone, have an abortion without our knowledge, surrounded and counseled by strangers, strikes at the heart of what it means to be a parent. Which is to be involved in our children's lives, their troubles as well as triumphs.

This feeling runs so deep that some 36 states now have parental-notification or consent laws on the books. Even the Freedom of Choice Act, which would make Roe the law of the land no matter what happens in the Supreme Court, leaves this too-hot-to-touch issue of parents and daughters to the states.

Most parents support those laws, though we know, deep down, you cannot legislate communication. There is no law that can make teen-agers notify their parents before they have sex. They don't need a permission slip to become pregnant. Maybe our daughters can't get an aspirin without our consent, but they can go through pregnancy and childbirth.

Indeed, in practical terms, many of these laws have a very different consequence than we may desire. The most stringent ones requiring parental consent throw up the highest barriers in front of the most vulnerable and youngest girls.

The vast majority of teen-agers do come to a parent for help. These girls can get abortions. But only the most sophisticated of estranged teen-agers can find their way through the system. Only the savviest can find the money, travel to the clinic, or stand up before a judge, and therefore make their own decisions.

The ones who are not savvy or sophisticated get to be the mothers. At which point, in most states, they are suddenly and ironically ''emancipated'' into legal adulthood.

It isn't just the parental-involvement laws that affect the young most. Every restriction that makes it more difficult for an adult woman to get an abortion makes it most difficult for a teen-ager.

As for Corinne Quayle, the unwitting and undoubtedly mortified ''daughter'' in her parents' public scenario? Together, the Second Couple has reminded us of the double standard of abortion. In the Quayle world an 18-year-old gets to be supported, whatever her decision. A 13-year-old gets to have a baby.

This is no joke. It's the foolishness that passes now for public policy.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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