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A Promising First Step in Protecting Illinois Teenagers' Health and Safety

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas,
Deputy Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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November 5, 2009

In a legal challenge brought by the ACLU, an Illinois state court yesterday issued an emergency order blocking a law that prevents teens from having an abortion unless they notify a parent or go to court. This victory ensures that teens throughout Illinois will continue to be safe and able to obtain the care that they need.

The truth is that most teens already turn to their parents when facing a pregnancy. This is what any of us would want as parents. Make no mistake: If enforced, this unconstitutional law would change nothing for those teens. Instead, the law endangers teenagers from dysfunctional families — those who face physical and emotional abuse, homelessness, and forced childbirth, among other things, if they tell their parents about their pregnancies.

The stories the ACLU submitted to the court make this point all too well:

  • One young woman described how her parents responded when her older sister became pregnant. Upon learning of the pregnancy, the father beat the older sister and threw her out of the house with all of her belongings. He then ordered the younger siblings to take the discarded things to a dumpster and demanded that they never speak to their sister again. Four years later, this young woman and her family still knew nothing of the sister's whereabouts.
  • Other young women tell of being emotionally abused or beaten when their parents learn they are pregnant; some were involuntarily sent to live in another country to prevent them from having an abortion; and others were forced to give birth and become mothers against their will.

Proponents of parental notice laws acknowledge, as they must, that these kinds of situations exist, and that it would be unlawful to allow a parent to overrule a young woman's right to decide whether and when to become a parent herself. Instead they point to the judicial bypass, which allows a teen to go to court in lieu of talking to her parents. But what kind of alternative is it to ask a pregnant teenager, one who is already feeling quite vulnerable, to find a lawyer, navigate an unfamiliar court system, and reveal the most intimate details of her life to a judge, a complete stranger. For many, especially those who are afraid or ashamed of revealing the abuse they experience at home, going to court is simply not an option.

Indeed, Jamie Sabino — a lawyer who has worked with minors seeking judicial bypasses in Massachusetts for more than 25 years — has many troubling stories to tell about the bypass process: One teen was at the courthouse for a bypass hearing when her sister's class came through on a field trip. Another ran into her father outside the courthouse. One young woman successfully went through her bypass hearing; however days later, an anti-abortion group sent her parents a letter informing them that she had done so. They had monitored the courthouse and identified her from a school yearbook picture.

Although promising, yesterday's injunction is only a first step. We will continue to fight this law in the weeks and months to come. In the meantime, instead of enforcing laws that do more harm than good, let's start talking to our daughters and sons about making responsible and healthy decisions about sexuality; let's help parents and teens communicate; and let's ensure that every teen has a caring adult they can turn to for advice and support no matter what life challenges they may face.

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