On the teen abortion issue, take a different perspective

Parental notification on abortion, an issue I hoped had been put to rest years ago, is back with New Mexico, thanks to House Bill 391, sponsored by Rep. Alonzo Baldonado (R-Valencia). The bill requires that if a minor is seeking an abortion, her parents must be notified first. The requirement is notice, not consent. The bill provides exceptions, including so-called judicial bypass – a way for the minor to get approval from a judge instead of her parents in certain circumstances. It also requires statistical reporting by all doctors who perform abortions (not limited to minors) – a provision that might be seen as a prelude to more restrictive legislation.

Should the law require girls under the age of consent – or the health care providers who want to help them – to notify parents before they can get an abortion? This question is not just about abortion. It’s about parenting and the precious protective relationship between parents and children.

Except sometimes the relationship is not protective.

How you react to this question depends on the point of view you take when you think about it. Some people take the issue personally. They relate the legislation to their own children, grandchildren, relatives or other favorite kids. Other people think about the less fortunate kids who don’t have adults they can trust with such a sensitive matter.

You and your family have the choice to raise your children with love and trust so that, at best, they won’t make youthful sexual mistakes, or, at worst, if an accidental pregnancy occurs they will be confident they can turn to you for guidance and support. But we know that in many families, young people have no loving adults to turn to in this kind of crisis. And we know that some teens, no matter how lovingly brought up, are too terrified to talk to their parents.

A 2006 publication called “Minors’ Access to Reproductive Health Care,” developed for Mexico by Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health and other organizations, observes:

 “Open communication with parents is not always possible for young people. Some come from homes where physical violence, sexual abuse or emotional abuse is prevalent. Other parents simply do not support their teenagers in seeking reproductive healthcare. In addition, research shows that the absence of confidentiality discourages minors from seeking reproductive health services. For these and other reasons, minors may legally receive certain health services without being required to tell their parents or obtain their parents’ consent.”

HB391 would change that.

The current status of this issue does not come from New Mexico statutes. It is the result of a series of US Supreme Court decisions that guarantee the right to choose abortion in most cases. As UNM law professor Rob Schwartz explained to me, one of those Supreme Court decisions gave states the authority to limit minors’ access to abortion by requiring that a parent be notified, as long as the state law includes judicial bypass as an alternative.

Abortion and mental health services are exceptions to the general rule that most interventions by a doctor require consent of a parent (lifesaving treatment under time pressure is also an exception). In general, we approve of that. We think it’s right for parents to be the decision-makers about their children’s health.

When you consider these issues, it’s natural to think as a parent – not as a citizen. But in the arena of public policy, both compassion and reason require that we put those emotions aside and consider the teenage girls who don’t have any safe place to turn. Public policy should not be forcing them to turn to an abusive or indifferent parent, with a frightening formal court process as the only alternative. The special exception in the law for reproductive issues exists for good reasons. Let’s leave it alone.


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