Laws Restricting Teenagers' Access to Abortion

April 1, 2001
Almost 350,000 U.S. teenagers under the age of 18 become pregnant each year. Approximately 82% of these pregnancies are unintended. Fifty-five percent of pregnant teenagers give birth, 14% have miscarriages, and 31% have abortions. (The Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), Special Report: U.S. Teenage Pregnancy Statistics: With Comparative Statistics for Women Aged 20-24 (1999).)

Many states have considered or adopted laws that would prevent teens under 18 from obtaining an abortion unless they involve a parent or go to court. These laws take two forms: Some require a clinic or physician to obtain the consent of a teen's parent(s) before the teen's abortion; others require a parent(s) to be notified before the procedure. Although everyone hopes that teens can turn to their parents when faced with an unintended pregnancy, and in fact most teens do so, laws preventing teens from obtaining health care unless they can talk to a parent put their health and safety at risk and do not increase family communication.

Most Teens Voluntarily Involve Their Parents in Their Abortion Decision

A majority of minors who have abortions do so with at least one parent's knowledge. Based on a national survey of more than 1,500 unmarried minors having abortions in states without parental involvement laws, 61% of young women discussed the decision to have an abortion with at least one of their parents. The younger the teen, the more likely she was to have voluntarily discussed the abortion with her parent. In fact, 90% of minors under 15 involved a parent in their decision to have an abortion. A majority of teens who did not talk to a parent turned to another trusted adult. (Stanley K. Henshaw and Kathryn Kost, "Parental Involvement In Minors' Abortion Decisions," 24 Family Planning Perspectives 196, 200 (1992).)

Most Teens Who Do Not Involve a Parent Have Very Good Reasons for Not Doing So

The minority of teens who do not voluntarily consult a parent generally have good reasons not to. Many come from families where such an announcement would only exacerbate an already volatile or dysfunctional family situation. One study showed that 22% of teens who did not tell a parent about their abortion decision feared that, if they told their parents, they would be kicked out of the house. More than 8% feared that they would be physically abused because their parents had beaten them before. Of those who did not tell a parent, 12% did not live with either parent and 14% had parents who abused drugs or alcohol. (Henshaw & Kost.)

Experience shows that teens' fears are well-founded. For example, one of the very first teens who was forced to notify a parent under Colorado's parental notice law was kicked out of her home when her mother learned of the pregnancy. Her mother took the money the teen had saved for the abortion and threatened to disown her if she went through with the procedure. When the teen called the clinic to reschedule her appointment, she was living in a friend's car. Far from strengthening her family and helping her make an informed decision, the law ruined her relationship with her mother and left her homeless with an unwanted pregnancy. Her experience is far from unique.

Governmental Intrusion into Family Relationships Doesn't Create Stronger Families

For teens who feel they cannot safely turn to their parents, government coercion doesn't change anything. There is no evidence that mandating parental involvement actually increases the rate at which teens tell their parents about their pregnancies and planned abortions. (Robert Wm. Blum, et al., "The Impact of a Parental Notification Law on Adolescent Abortion Decision-Making," 77 American Journal of Public Health 619, 620 (1987).) As the New Jersey Supreme Court found when it held that state's parental notice law unconstitutional, a law "cannot transform a household with poor lines of communication into a paradigm of the perfect American family." (Planned Parenthood v. Farmer, 762 A.2d 620, 637 (N.J. 2000).)

Mandating Parental Involvement Jeopardizes Teenagers' Health

Teens already are more likely than older women to have later abortions, and restricting teens' access to abortion only causes further delays. For example, following enactment of Missouri's parental consent law, the proportion of second-trimester abortions among minors increased by 17%. (AGI calculations based on data from Vicky Howell Pierson, "Missouri's Parental Consent Law and Teen Pregnancy Outcomes," 22 Women and Health 47, 53 (1995).) While abortion is safer than childbirth, later abortions entail more medical risks and are more difficult to obtain because they are more expensive and fewer doctors perform them.

In addition, because mandating parental involvement in a teen's abortion decision can prevent teens from getting the abortions they want, it can lead to teens suffering the physical, emotional, educational, economic, and social costs of teenage childbearing.

The Leading Medical Groups Oppose Mandating Parental Involvement

Because these laws put teens' health and safety at risk and do not create better families, all of the major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society for Adolescent Medicine, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Public Health Association, oppose laws mandating parental involvement in minors' abortion decisions.

These Laws Unfairly Single Out Those Pregnant Teens Who Choose Abortion

The risks of delayed and denied health care far outweigh the costs of permitting teens to consent on their own to abortion services. Every state in the nation has recognized this fact when it comes to teens who choose to continue their pregnancies and have children. For example, no state requires a young woman to obtain parental consent for prenatal care and delivery services; no state requires parents to be notified of their daughter's positive pregnancy test; all but five states allow a minor to place her child for adoption without parental involvement; and all states allow adolescents to consent to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. It is only if the teen chooses to have an abortion that states seek to require parental involvement. If teenagers can consent on their own to services related to childbirth -- and even to delivery by cesarean section, a far more dangerous procedure than abortion -- there can be no health-related reason for denying them the right to consent on their own to abortion. (Heather Boonstra and Elizabeth Nash, "Minors and the Right to Consent to Health Care" 3 The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy 4, 6-7 (Aug. 2000).)

For Many Young Women, Going to Court for a Waiver Is Not a Real Alternative

In order to be constitutional, laws mandating parental involvement must allow teens to go to court to request a waiver of the requirement. But forcing young women who cannot turn to their parents to go to court and to reveal the details of their private lives to strangers causes them extraordinary fear, anxiety, and shame. Many teens are too scared of going to court and talking to a judge to make this a real alternative.

In addition, going to court and waiting for a decision from a judge can cause substantial delays. These delays not only increase the risk of the procedure, but, because the price of an abortion goes up substantially and fewer physicians provide the service as the pregnancy advances, the delay makes an abortion unobtainable for some teens.

For other teens, going to court jeopardizes their confidentiality, particularly in small towns where a young woman may be recognized by the judge or other court personnel. For example, in Massachusetts a young woman's intention to obtain an abortion was exposed when her sister's civics class came through the courthouse; another teen ran into a neighbor in the courthouse; another encountered her godmother who worked in the court. In Minnesota, anti-abortion activists sat in the court hallways and used yearbooks from the local high schools to identify the teens who came in for judicial waivers and expose their decisions to have abortions.

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