Nebraska officials make private decision a public one

October 03, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- I don't suppose very many people in Omaha saw the play last fall. It was experimental theater, and a political drama at that. A show with a deliberately provocative plot that asked the question, ''What if?''

What if a pro-life band of true believers kidnapped a pregnant woman to prevent her from having an abortion? What if they went beyond harassing women at abortion clinics and ''rescued'' a fetus by holding its vessel captive until she delivered? It was deliberately far-fetched, a mind-teaser.

Real-life drama

But what the audience didn't know, what the actors couldn't have known, was that a real-life version of this play was being performed 25 miles away.

In the small town of Blair, Neb., a 15-year-old pregnant girl had become the object of a ''rescue.'' Only this wasn't the action of some fringe group; it was the collaborative act of local officials.

The stunning plot, as outlined in the lawsuit filed recently by the girl's family, began when this high school girl discovered that she was pregnant. Her parents, Connie and Carl Scott, assumed that they and their daughter would deal with this crisis privately. That, after all, is the law.

No law allows a husband, let alone a 16-year-old boy, the right to decide -- either to forbid or to force an abortion. No legislation requires the boy's parental consent.

The girl, who has always had irregular periods, discovered that she was 23 weeks pregnant. Together with her parents, she made an appointment with a doctor who performed abortions.

Second-trimester abortions are the most controversial. We don't know what decision the teen-ager, her parents and the doctor would have made at that point if they'd kept the appointment. But the central issue of this drama is whether a town can write and enforce a private set of laws.

Act II and Act III as described by the Scotts' lawsuit were more terrifying. Knowing of the pregnancy, the boy's mother and stepfather, Kathy and John Tull, did what the Operation Rescue folks might call so benignly ''an intervention.'' According to the complaint, they barged into the Scotts' home.

Police assistance

When the Scotts called the police to protect them, an off-duty deputy came with anti-abortion literature while an on-duty officer asked the girl if in fact she had an appointment to have an abortion.

The Tulls then got a letter from a doctor who had never seen the girl saying that an abortion would be dangerous to her health -- a recurrent claim that even C. Everett Koop, the pro-life surgeon general, dismissed. Yet armed with that bogus piece of paper, the police sent out -- what shall we call it, a posse? -- for the Scott girl.

Imagine the next scene. In the middle of the night, a fleet of patrol cars surrounded the house where the family was staying. The posse took the terrified teen-ager into custody and off to jail for questioning.

Hours later, they sent her to a foster home in order to protect her, the county attorney claimed, from her parents. Their criminal neglect? Helping her make an appointment for an abortion.

Forgive me if the drama becomes courtroom melodrama now. A second doctor determined that the teen-ager was 27 weeks pregnant and the family agreed it was too late to abort. Still the judge released the Scotts' daughter to her parents only on the written condition that ''no abortion shall be performed on the subject's unborn child.''

So, in an astonishing set of circumstances, this family was stripped of the legal right to make this decision privately. The 15-year-old was a captive to what the ACLU's Janet Gallagher calls ''an official vigilantism.'' The unofficial vigilantes of the town merely drove her out of school and drove the family out of town.

There are many reasons why the Scotts might have let this drama end there. Emotions still run dangerously high; on the day the suit was filed, the Scotts' old house in Blair was vandalized.

A kidnapping

But this family cannot forget that, in Ms. Gallagher's words, ''their daughter was kidnapped from her family under the color of law, with the connivance of the local police and authorities.'' The love for a granddaughter they are helping to raise doesn't mute that memory of injustice. Or the knowledge that it could happen to anyone, 15 or 35 years old, 23 weeks pregnant or six.

This is not the first time that a boyfriend has tried to influence an abortion decision. Nor is this the only small town where anti-abortion sentiment runs deep.

But in Blair, the undisputed facts describe town authorities who twisted the law to fit their own sentiments. And a drama about ''what if'' has now become a docudrama about ''what is.''

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

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