Abortion bill again stirs feelings

Perennial measure on parental consent debated before panel

February 25, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The issue comes up perennially in the state legislature, and every year it has failed. This year likely will be no different.

That did not stop the issue of young teens, abortion and parental involvement from stirring crosscurrents of emotions yesterday before a House committee in Annapolis.

The proposed legislation -- narrower in scope this year than in previous years -- would eliminate the confidentiality afforded young teens who seek information on sexuality or treatment, including abortion.

Yesterday's hearing before the House Environmental Matters Committee brought in those on both sides of the abortion issue: parents who want to be involved in decisions about their children's health, and advocates who say many children fear telling their parents about their sex lives.

The bill, known as the Parental Rights Act of 2000, says children under 15 would not be able to get treatment or information without parental consent. It also says physicians may tell a parent or guardian of a child under 15 that the child has sought information about abortion.

"This bill is not going to make children tell their parents everything," Ann Bruner, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told the House committee yesterday.

On the other side of the debate, Barbara Adams, a Columbia parent, said, "We need to restore to parents the right to know what is going on in our children's lives."

Thirty-two states have laws that require an adult's involvement before a minor can get an abortion. In Maryland, at least one parent must be notified, but a physician could bypass parents if the physician felt notification would put the child in danger.

Dave Lam, executive director of Right to Life, said his organization favors the bill because it lets parents in on a crucial decision in the lives of their children.

"We believe parents should be involved in the minor daughter's abortion decision," he said. "I think parents have the very best for their daughters in mind. The bill doesn't say they can't have an abortion, but that the parents should be involved in the decision."

Opponents said they support the rights of parents to be involved in such decisions but are concerned about the fate of children who might not have compassionate parents or whose parents are part of the problem.

A fiscal note on the bill indicated a possible increase in public health care costs because some adolescents would not seek help for pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases if parental consent was required. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia let minors decide whether their parents should be told that they're seeking prenatal care and other services.

Roberta Geidner-Antoniotti, president of Maryland Planned Parenthood, said her organization is "very strongly against [the bill] because it would be horrible public policy in terms of the health of our adolescents.

"This kind of legislation assumes that every household is a `Cleaver' household," she said. "Not every family is an ideal family."

Ginny Roth Redmon of Calvert County, who also opposed the bill, said her family has been buffeted by crises, including addiction and rape. Often, she said, her children sought help elsewhere. "I did everything I thought was right. Still, it was not enough," she said. "Parenting is a learning experience, and we're still learning."

Redmon told the committee she has had a change of heart on this issue. "Fifteen years ago I would have supported this bill. In fact, I would have been fighting for this bill," she said.

Now, she said, "if my children would not or could not come to me for help, I would hope that help was available to them at any age," she said.

Adams, the Columbia parent, has been coming to Annapolis for 10 years to speak in favor of bills on parental involvement. "My problem has been interference from outsiders," she said. "I take my daughter to the doctor and he can't wait to get me out of the room. I see a lot of times when people who maybe mean well are leaving parents out of the picture."

Adams said one problem is that in some cases counselors and others see parents "as the enemy."

Conrae Fortlage, also of Columbia, said that in many cases parents are being treated as if they were "abusive, backward, incapable of caring for their kids."

"It's time to give parents back their constitutional rights, their constitutional right to take care of their kids," she said. "If my kids have a problem, we have a problem. It affects the rest of the family."

Bruner, the pediatrician, said that though studies show 25 percent of teens would not want to talk about sexually related issues with their parents, "most kids want their parents to know."

"I do not want to divorce a child from their parents. Parents are not the enemy," she said. "The bigger part of my job is to get their parents involved in what's going on."

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