Keep it out of court

March 09, 2003

THERE'S A wrong way to discourage teen-age abortions - and a right way.

Picture a teen-ager who shows up at a family planning clinic in Baltimore, fearful that she'll be beaten or thrown out of the house if her mother and stepfather hear about her pregnancy. She wants an abortion, but Maryland is one of 14 states that wisely require notification of parents or guardians. The law - also wisely - gives physicians the authority to waive the requirement if they feel notification would "lead to physical or emotional abuse."

Now there's a move in Maryland and several other states to take that judgment away from physicians and give it to judges. Bills wending their way through the General Assembly require the threatened - and no doubt frightened - pregnant teen-ager to make her case in Circuit Court, where she would get a court-appointed lawyer, an expedited and "confidential" hearing and the right to appeal if the waiver is denied.

No longer would the threat of physical or emotional abuse be sufficient. Under this legislation, the pregnant girl would have to demonstrate a "pattern of physical, sexual or emotional abuse of the minor by the parent."

Proponents of this legislation say it will promote family involvement in abortion decisions. But 80 percent of young women who visit abortion clinics have informed their families or arrive with a parent, usually the mother. This bill is obviously designed to place still another hurdle on the road to abortion. Young women are going to be much less likely to take their case from a doctor's office to a court chamber. (In Maryland, circuit judges are elected. Wait until their record on abortions becomes a campaign issue, which it surely will.)

That's the wrong way. The right way is to stop a pregnancy before it begins, with emergency contraception within 72 hours of intercourse. Under another bill in the General Assembly, Maryland would become the fourth state to authorize pharmacies to dispense emergency contraceptives under standing orders from cooperating physicians. Women would not need individual prescriptions, which can be hard to obtain on weekends and at odd hours.

A backup birth control method is especially important to sexually active teens, who may have sex only sporadically and are more likely than older women to experience contraceptive failure.

Opponents maintain access to emergency contraceptives encourages teen-age promiscuity, but there's no evidence it does. The evidence is that such access averts abortions - 51,000 of them nationally in 2000, according to one study. That's a pro-life statistic if ever there was one.

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