Giving abortion a unique burden under law

July 10, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Sooner or later it always comes down to earrings.

At some point in the debate, a legislator, politician or moralist who has never previously shown the slightest interest in the public policy on body piercing will utter the same rhetorical battle cry: "If a teen-ager can't get her ears pierced without parental consent, why should she be able to get an abortion?"

Frankly, the analogy still escapes me. We are, after all, talking about the realities of reproduction, not jewelry.

Teen-agers can have sex (alas) without parental notification. Teen-agers can continue a pregnancy, receive prenatal care, and indeed deliver a baby without having our names on the hospital permission slip.

Nevertheless, about half the states have passed laws that say there is one thing a teen-age girl can't do without the notification or consent of a parent or judge: She can't end her pregnancy.

And now Congress is poised to top that with another little gem.

Criminal grandmothers

When Congress returns next week, the House is expected to vote on a bill that would make it a crime to accompany a minor across state lines for an abortion if the requirements of her home state aren't met. A sister, aunt, grandmother or friend who drives a pregnant teen-ager from a state with parental consent laws to a state without such laws would be a criminal.

This bill is euphemistically called the Child Custody Protection Act, as if strangers all over America were abducting pregnant girls from their homes. It's wrapped in slogans about family and child-parent communication.

Indeed with all the pro-life pressure and pro-family dressing, Harvard law professor Larry Tribe says, "it is hard to get people to pause, peel back the label and say this is not about protecting parental custody of children at all, but singling out abortion for unique burdens."

How unique? For one thing, the law casually turns the federal system into a pretzel. It says that a U.S. citizen must obey the laws of her home state even when she goes over the state line. That's akin to making it illegal to cross the border in order to drink.

Under the federal system, states are expected to have different laws. Citizens are allowed to vote with their feet.

Today, Iowa has a different idea about how you protect a pregnant minor than neighboring Illinois, and Massachusetts has a different idea than New Hampshire. But under this bill, a citizen of Massachusetts who goes to New Hampshire is still subject to Massachusetts' rules. As Mr. Tribe says, "It's not quite imprisoning you within your home state, but it comes pretty close."

More bizarre is the fact that this law wouldn't make it illegal for the girl herself to cross state lines to get an abortion without involving parents. It would make it illegal for the person -- sister, aunt, friend -- assisting her.

Going it alone

The most desperate of pregnant teen-agers, the very ones who won't talk to their parents, or hassle through the judicial bypass process, will be the ones forced to go it all alone.

Now let me say that I won my merit badge in Raising A Teen-ager. I wholly understand the gut fear that something is going on in our child's life and we're out of the loop.

But I also know that most teen-age girls -- more than 75 percent of those under 16 -- have talked to a parent before seeking an abortion. I know some can't or think they can't -- and that a third of those who don't notify parents have been victims of family violence. These figures stay the same in states with and without consent laws.

Despite all the ear-piercing rhetoric, this is the bottom line: you can't write a law forcing parent-child communication. That requires a very different set of family skills. It has little to do with earrings. And a lot to do with listening.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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