House panel poised to stop evaders of teen abortion laws Crossing state lines without consent would be outlawed

June 17, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The statutory rape of her young daughter was horror enough for Joyce Farley. The botched secret abortion that followed only made it worse.

Farley had known nothing of the rape or of her daughter's progressing pregnancy. One day in August 1995, her daughter, Crystal, was simply gone. The stepmother of Crystal's boyfriend had spirited the girl off from their home in Dushore, Pa., for an abortion in New York, beyond the reach of Pennsylvania's parental consent law. The girl returned that night, alone, bleeding and in pain, just days past her 13th birthday.

"I don't care what your views on abortion are," an emotional Farley told a House subcommittee last month. "Just don't let them interfere with the protection of a child. Please don't turn your head and ignore what happened to my daughter."

Congress appears ready to heed that plea. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to approve a bill today that would make it illegal to transport a minor across state lines to avoid laws that mandate parental consent for a teen-ager's abortion. A final House vote could come next week. Similar legislation is moving quickly through the Senate.

In an election year, many Republicans believe they are on the popular side of the interstate transport bill. They will push the legislation to the White House by this fall.

Proponents call the measures a common-sense way to prevent adults from evading laws in more than 20 states, including Maryland, that require the consent or notification of at least one parent -- or the approval of a judge -- for a minor's abortion.

"A child can't even be given an aspirin at school without her parent's permission," Rep. Charles T. Canady, a Florida Republican, said before his House subcommittee overwhelmingly approved the bill last week. "The Child Custody Protection Act will simply ensure the effectiveness of state laws designed to provide a layer of protection against dangers to children's health and safety."

Opponents, including abortion rights groups and civil libertarians, argue that the legislation has nothing to do with child safety. Rather, they say, the bill is another effort by conservatives to chip away at a woman's right to abortion. The legislation, they contend, would encourage a girl who lacks a parent's permission for abortion to travel alone across state lines or seek illegal abortions in more dangerous ways.

"This law would have the most devastating impact on the most vulnerable teen-agers," said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation, a coalition of abortion providers. "Legislators really need to slow down and think about the impact."

Abortion issues have been election-year staples for the Republican-led Congress, an easy way to force a presidential veto and clearly define core social issues separating the political parties. In the Child Custody Protection Act, Republicans have found an issue that even many Democrats might have difficulty opposing.

"It's a bill that recognizes a growing problem in this country," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "It's a tough issue. I'm sympathetic, but I want to take a good look before I decide" on a position.

The White House so far has been silent on the measures.

Beyond the politics are heart-rending stories -- on both sides -- to illustrate how complex the issue is.

There is the mentally handicapped 16-year-old in Louisiana who was raped by her father. For medical reasons, the girl's mother needed to take her daughter to Texas for a hospital abortion. But Louisiana's parental consent law requires approval from both parents. The father, in prison for the rape, refused. The mother went anyway. Under the legislation, the mother's action could have meant up to a year in prison.

And there is the Baltimore case of a 12-year-old, raped by her stepfather. Her mother had long since lived apart from the child. Her aunt, Vicky Simpson, was awaiting an order granting her custody. The only clinic the aunt knew of that would perform an abortion on a girl so young, and, at 22 weeks, so pregnant, was in Kansas City, Mo.

"She was only 12 -- 12 years old," Simpson said, explaining why she believed abortion was the best option. "Wouldn't that seem strange to have your stepfather's child? It's bad enough to go through incest, but to have the child?"

Under the pending legislation, Simpson's Greyhound bus ride with her young charge could have been a federal offense, because Simpson had not informed the girl's mother as required under Maryland law.

"Is this really enforceable?" asked Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat who opposes the legislation. "Are you really going to put a mother in jail because an estranged husband wouldn't consent? Are you going to put a grandmother in jail, or a foster parent?"

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