Abortion is one of the most controversial issues in American society and politics today. Since 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, opposing groups have sought to increase or restrict access to abortion, leading to intense debates among political leaders and activists, state and federal governments, and religious organizations.
The abortion debate is often considered a two-sided controversy, but it is actually a multifaceted issue that involves questions about biology, morality, and legal rights. For example, people who consider themselves pro-life argue that abortion destroys human life, which they believe begins at conception. Therefore, abortion is immoral and should be illegal. Some pro-life advocates allow exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or when the mother’s health is at risk. People who identify themselves as pro-choice contend that a woman’s right to make decisions concerning her body and her future outweigh the rights of the fetus. Some pro-choice supporters endorse restrictions on abortion, such as informed consent laws, which require that a woman receive state-authored literature on abortion before undergoing the procedure, and mandatory waiting periods. One of the most controversial restrictions on abortion requires minors to notify or obtain the consent of at least one parent before having an abortion.
In 1976, a landmark Supreme Court case, Bellotti v. Baird, challenged a Massachusetts statute that required a minor to obtain parental consent before undergoing an abortion. The existing statute afforded a young woman the right to petition the courts if her parents refused to consent to the procedure. In addition, the statute required the courts to notify the minor’s parents if she filed a bypass petition. The Supreme Court decided that the law requiring parental consent was constitutional, but, as stated by the Court, “every pregnant minor is entitled in the first instance to go directly to court for a judicial determination without prior parental notice, consultation or consent.” The Court also held that minors have the right to confidentiality, and courts thereafter were prohibited from notifying a young woman’s parents if she petitioned for judicial bypass.
Other provisions regulating parental consent and notification laws that Bellotti v. Baird set down included the requirement that a pregnant teen be given the opportunity to prove that she is mature enough to make the abortion decision on her own. If she proves that she is mature enough, the court must bypass the parental involvement requirement, a process known as judicial bypass. If the court decides that she is not mature enough, the minor must be given the opportunity to show that abortion is in her best interest. If she makes this showing, the court must grant her request. Finally, according to the court decision, the hearing must “be completed with anonymity and sufficient expedition to provide an effective opportunity for an abortion to be obtained.” Thus, the courts must ensure that the judicial system does not needlessly delay the minor’s abortion, which increases the costs and risks of the procedure. Subsequent court cases have upheld the standards that Bellotti dictated, including the controversial 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
Planned Parenthood v. Casey challenged Pennsylvania’s 1989 Abortion Control Act, which, among other ordinances, required a minor to obtain a parent’s consent before having an abortion. The Supreme Court affirmed the Bellotti decision, that the parental consent law with judicial bypass was constitutional, and decided that the state may impose restrictions on abortion as long as the restrictions do not impose an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to procure an abortion. Thus, according to the Court, a parental involvement law with a judicial bypass option does not unduly burden a minor seeking an abortion. The Casey decision validated state laws that require parental consent in a minor’s abortion decision and inspired many states to enact some form of a parental involvement requirement.
According to Planned Parenthood, as of 2001, seventeen states require a minor to obtain the consent of one or both of her parents for an abortion, and fifteen states require a minor to notify one or both of her parents of her decision to have an abortion. All states with parental involvement laws provide a judicial bypass option, and some states allow grandparents, siblings, aunts, or uncles who are at least twenty-five years old to consent for the minor in place of her parent. These laws have generated intense debate among abortion activists and politicians over whether such restrictions constitute an “undue burden” on a young woman’s right to seek an abortion.
Many people who are in favor of parental notification and consent laws argue that parental knowledge in a time of crisis is in the best interest of the child because parents are in the best position to protect their daughters from the risks and consequences of abortion. Supporters maintain that parents are responsible for the medical and psychological wellbeing of their daughters, and therefore they should be informed of any medical procedure that is performed on them. Moreover, supporters point out that parents have the right to know about other activities that their underage teens engage in that are much less significant than abortion. As stated by former democratic senatorial candidate John Pinkerton, “Parents must give consent before their child can have their ears pierced or a tattoo put on. In fact, in public schools and emergency rooms, parents must give consent before their child can be treated with so much as an aspirin. Most voters agree that it is outrageous to allow a child to undergo any surgical procedure, let alone an invasive, irreversible procedure such as an abortion, without parental notification.”
Advocates of parental notification and consent laws maintain that teenagers need the support of their parents when they make a decision as potentially life-altering as abortion. These people argue that teenagers should consult their parents before they decide to have an abortion because their parents can offer experience and maturity that the teenager lacks. In addition, parental involvement laws foster communication and family unity at a time when a minor most needs the comfort of her family. According to research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “There is little evidence . . . to suggest that parental notification legislation does harm to a teenager or her family. If anything, such requirements might support family communication and facilitate decision-making.”
However, opponents of parental involvement laws argue that state laws requiring parental consent or notification are unnecessary and pose risks to pregnant teenagers. These critics contend that loving and communicative families do not need laws to foster unity, and most young women who seek abortions discuss the procedure with at least one parent anyway. A study conducted by Planned Parenthood found that 61 percent of minors who had abortions discussed their plans with at least one parent before undergoing the procedure. Of those minors who did not inform their parents of their abortions, 30 percent had histories of violence in their families, feared the occurrence of violence, or were afraid of being kicked out of their homes. The American Association of University Women states, “While the intent of such laws is to enhance family communication, the failure to guarantee confidentiality often deters young people from seeking timely services and care resulting in increased instances of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and lateterm abortions.”
Opponents of parental consent and notification laws, including most medical associations, allege that the judicial system causes dangerous delays for minors who seek abortions. Teenagers are more likely than older women to have later abortions anyway; court delays can prohibit a young woman from obtaining an abortion until well into the second trimester of pregnancy, increasing the risks and costs of the procedure. For example, the proportion of second trimester abortions among minors in Missouri increased by 17 percent following the enactment of a parental consent law. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Legislation mandating parental involvement does not achieve the intended benefit of promoting family communication, but it does increase the risk of harm to the adolescent by delaying access to appropriate medical care. . . . [M]inors should not be compelled or required to involve their parents in their decisions to obtain abortions, although they should be encouraged to discuss their pregnancies with their parents and other responsible adults.”
The argument over whether minors must involve their parents in abortion decisions is one aspect of the abortion rights controversy. At Issue: Should Abortion Rights Be Restricted? gives readers a thorough understanding of the legal issues surrounding the abortion debate.