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"Bill on Parental Consent for Abortions Poses Quandary."
The New York Observer,
30 April 1990, p. 12.

© Copyright Mary Campbell Gallagher 1990.
All rights reserved.

"My father is from a pre-Revolutionary family," says the young graduate student, an athletic-looking woman with long, dark brown hair. ". . . Both of my parents are extremely liberal. I was 17, and I didn't want to tell them that I wanted an abortion.

"I went to a very progressive small boarding school," she continues. "While I was at home after graduation, I slept with somebody I had known for a long time. I was very ambivalent. Everything before then had just been one night. I wasn't sure I had the courage to make it part of the relationship. . . . I didn't know I was pregnant until I got to college."

The woman says she did not tell her parents about her abortion. "Part of it was that they would be angry with me for being stupid," she explains. "I felt really stupid. I also had just never admitted directly that I was having sex."

This year, an election year, the New York State Catholic Conference and other "pro-life" groups are appearing in Albany every Tuesday, delivering thousands of letters and vigorously lobbying for legislation to require consent from at least one parent before an unmarried teen-ager can have an abortion. The legislation is a perennial, but a version has passed both houses only once, in 1976, when Governor Carey vetoed it--an action he now says he regrets.

Public debate on the parental consent proposal evokes some of the arguments of the debate about abortion, but it evokes greater ambivalence from both sides.

Proponents of such laws know that teen-age pregnancy can affect a woman for life. Abortion providers commonly suggest that a teen-ager should talk to her parents, and opponents of consent laws know that, as parents, they would want to be told in advance if an unmarried daughter of theirs was having an abortion. Without saying whether or not he would sign a consent proposal the Legislature sent him, Governor Cuomo has stated that as a parent "I would want to know if a minor daughter of mine had to face the decision, whether to have an abortion or carry a child to term."

When it decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court left open the extent of minors’ right to abortions. Striking down the Texas criminal abortion statute in Roe, the court recognized that a woman's right to privacy included her decision, in consultation with her physician, to terminate her pregnancy within the first 12 weeks, the so-called first trimester. In a series of subsequent cases challenging the constitutionality of state laws requiring parental consent or notification, the court has stressed that minors' constitutional rights are more limited than adults'--for example, in obtaining obscene material.

The court has emphasized minors' vulnerability and their limited ability to make difficult decisions and has noted its long line of cases recognizing the role of parents in educating and training their children.

The court has ruled, however, that while a state may require the consent of one or both parents to an unmarried minor's abortion, it must provide an alternative legal procedure, usually judicial, known as a bypass, so that there is no possibility of an "absolute, and possibly arbitrary," veto. In the bypass, the minor must show, normally in a sealed court proceeding, either "that she is mature enough and well enough informed to make her abortion decision, in consultation with her physician, independently of her parents' wishes," or that the desired abortion would be in her "best interests," in the words of the Supreme Court's decision in a 1979 case.

The proposal introduced in the New York Legislature calls for consent from both parents unless the teen-ager's parents are divorced or one parent is not available within a reasonable period. It does provide for bypass, in Family Court; for anonymity, for sealing of the record, and for expedited, and anonymous, appeal to the Appellate Division. Nine other states have parental consent-with-bypass laws in operation, and five others have in operation laws requiring parental notification.

On Nov. 29, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Hodgson v. Minnesota, a case challenging the notification statute that was in effect in Minnesota for 4 1/2 years, requiring notice to both natural parents, divorced or not. Petitioners assert that the practical difficulties the statute placed in teen-agers' way made it "unconstitutional as applied."


In Room 116 of shabby West Side High School, on 102nd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, three teen-age girls and their young children are eating their lunch out of white plastic deli containers. On the wall, large posters show "Embryo and Fetus Growth" in color. There is a black-and-white diagram of a pregnant woman, in cross section. Another poster advises: "A condom is a friend in your pocket" in English and Spanish. This is the Parenting Education classroom in one of the public schools in Manhattan serving pregnant teen-agers and teen parents.

A pretty girl, slender and slight, with a white hat pulled down over her ears, says: "I was 15 when my son was born. I wanted one. I just wanted one, just to have it, I didn't know the responsibilities. I just like little babies. I got pregnant two years ago, too, and I had an abortion. My son was only 5 months old. It was too soon. I didn't tell my mother right away, but eventually I told her."

The girl's teacher, Marie Bronshvag, has been teaching in the public schools for 15 years, after three years in Catholic schools. "The Catholic schools made one of the girls who came here leave," she says. "They were afraid the others would see her and decide to get pregnant."


City statistics show that more than 10 percent of New York City females between 10 and 19 were pregnant in 1988. According to data from the Health Department, more than half of those females have abortions: The provisional figures for 1988 are 15,487 abortions as against 13,521 live births.

Extensive inquiries among "pro-choice" activists failed to turn up any clinic, hospital or other abortion providers in New York City with a policy of requiring parental consent for teens. "It happens, it happens from time to time," says Monica Murphy, head of the Manhattan Teen Pregnancy Network. But it does not happen commonly.

Abortion is advertised on the subways and in the Yellow Pages. Private clinics generally charge from $250 to $1,000, depending mostly on how late in the pregnancy the procedure is performed, The teen-agers' abortions are paid for with cash, Visa, Mastercard, private insurance or, in about 41 percent of the cases, with Medicaid. The Teen Pregnancy Networks and Planned Parenthood in the five boroughs will show the teen-ager how to apply for Medicaid in the name of the unborn, so that her confidentiality is not broken by having Medicaid ask about her parents' income. A change, such as enforcement of a law requiring parental consent, would represent a very big change in New York City.

Copyrighted material. © Copyright Mary Campbell Gallagher 1990. All rights reserved. _________

Opponents of parental consent laws regard them as oppressive. Says Simon Heller, who worked on the American Civil Liberties Union's brief for the Supreme Court in the Minnesota case, "Teen-aged women are among the most vulnerable. They are those for whom the right to choose is most important. They are at greater health risk, and at greater risk of harm to their futures." The laws' opponents argue that if a parent is with the teen-agers, they are less apt to give a full medical history in a clinic and tell about previous sexual experience and previous abortions. Although the Alan Guttmacher Institute says about 55 percent of teen-agers do tell at least one parent about an abortion, many minors may be afraid to go for help if they have to talk to a parent, too.

Proponents of parental consent laws point out, however, that the shift from private physicians to clinics means that, where parental involvement is not required, many teen-agers must reach the abortion decision alone.

"Most girls have already made up their minds when they come here," says a woman who has been a clinic abortion counselor for 13 years. "All we can do is explain the procedure to them and offer some emotional support."

A young woman who had an abortion when she was 17 says: "I think I might have been relieved if I had been forced to tell my parents—‘They're going to take care of me.’ I felt kind of thrust into dealing with something that I was too young to deal with. The experience of the abortion was painful. It was an invasion. I had a lot of maternal feelings. I love babies. The strange thing is that I got married only a year later, when I was 18. Maybe that was just a reaction. . . ."

Opponents of parental consent laws say such laws make the pregnant teen-ager an easy prey to drug-addicted or psychotic parents. With family violence occurring in at least 2 million households, they say, many teen-agers invite disaster if they have to tell their parents they are pregnant. "You may just make a bad matter worse," says Donna Lieberman, associate director of the New York A.C.L.U.

Meryl Guerre, who, several nights each month, answers Birthline, a 24-hour hotline organized by opponents of abortion, sees it differently. "Every girl says, ‘My mother will kill me!’" Ms. Guerre says. "We tell them to talk to an aunt or a grandmother, and to get advice, and then go to their parents." And in the Hodgson case, Minnesota's lawyers point out that although that state's law requiring parental notification had been in effect for 4 1/2 years, there was no evidence at trial of violence traceable to a girl's going to her parents.

Opponents also argue that anything that delays a teen-ager's abortion may be dangerous to her health. "We regard every teen pregnancy as an emergency," notes Katharine Parrent, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of New York. The Guttmacher Institute reports: "The risk of death associated with abortion increases with the length of pregnancy, from 1 death for every 500,000 abortions at 8 weeks or less to 1 per 30,000 at 16-20 weeks and 1 per 8,000 at 21 or more weeks."

And even without a requirement of parental consent, teen-agers tend to put off the abortion decision. One young woman, who said she had been raped, recalls her attitude of denial toward her pregnancy: "I hoped it would go away."

Proponents of parental consent laws argue that, on the contrary, parents may be more clearheaded about the need for an early abortion than is a teen-ager under severe stress. In the Hodgson case, the State of Minnesota points out that though petitioners argue that the parental consent law caused more teen-agers to undergo second-trimester abortions, Minnesota Department of Health statistics show that there was a marked decline--of about 30 percent--in the number of teen-agers having second-trimester abortions once the statute was in effect.

Opponents argue that parental consent laws belong only to the politics of abortion and do not help to deal with the issue of pregnant teen-agers. Suzanne Hanchett, the Ph.D. in anthropology who was coordinator of the Mayor's Office of Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting Services in the Koch administration, deems those laws deceptive. "Beware!" she has written. "Too often legislators and groups who wish to restrict abortions use parental consent as an excuse to limit teenage abortions."

Barbara Meara, of the New York Right to Life Committee, objects. "My own personal objective is to reduce the number of abortions," she says. "But many parents will support a girl's decision to have an abortion. Those girls should have their parents' support."


Mentioned only occasionally in statistical reports, but common in the conversation of young women who have had abortions, is the suggestion that women sometimes are afraid to tell their parents they want an abortion because the parents do not know they are having sex.

"My parents both worked," says a former Wall Street worker who had an abortion when she was 14 and attending a private girls school in northern New Jersey. "The rule was, ‘No guys over unless my mother was there,’ but the housekeeper had the I.Q. of a spoon and she didn't care." Her parents found out she had gone to Planned Parenthood. Though she told them it was just for birth control, "my mother had a tree." She was leaving on a business trip that day, "so she sent her best friend over to the house to yell at me." Similarly, the graduate student with the long brown hair says: "I was Daddy's little girl. I was afraid to tell them I was having sex." Both women say they would have liked their parents to caution them more strongly, beforehand, not to have sex when they were so young.

"It always amazes me," says Dr. Alan Zarkin, who has a private practice and also performs abortions in a clinic. "Kids, kids, are sexually active much earlier than we would anticipate. The parents say, ‘This won't happen to my kid,’ but they just don't find out. When I was 13 or 14, 1 didn't come home in the afternoon and watch ‘The Guiding Light.’ There was a parent there. Now, nobody's home."

-- The End --

© Copyright Mary Campbell Gallagher 1990.