Prop 4 Threatens Teen Safety and Reproductive Rights

12/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

California's Prop 4, a constitutional amendment that would require doctors to notify parents 48 hours before terminating the pregnancy of a woman under 18, is a serious threat to teen safety and an erosion of California's strong protections for reproductive rights.

Parental notification initiatives have been rejected by voters twice already, in 2005 and 2006, so it is not surprising that Prop 4 hasn't received much attention this election season.

Both supporters and opponents of Prop 4 agree that family communication is important, particularly about something as serious as pregnancy. However, legislating family communication simply does not work. Research shows that a majority of teens do consult their parents or go to a trusted aunt or older sister prior to seeking an abortion. For these young women who have good relationships and open communication with their families, this law is unnecessary.

It's the young women living in unhealthy or abusive family situations who are put at most risk by Prop 4. For these young women, disclosing a pregnancy to their parents could expose them to further abuse, being kicked out of their home or worse.

The authors of Prop 4 argue that, unlike previous, rejected versions, this year's proposal includes a clause that allows teens to petition a judge to have an alternative adult family member notified in lieu of their parents. But this provision is rendered meaningless by the maze of red tape young women would have to go through, particularly for those from low-income families or rural areas and those with limited English speaking skills.

Can you imagine a frightened, pregnant teen with no money having to skip school, find transportation to the courthouse, fill out complicated paperwork and make a court date to come back and reveal to a judge the intimate details of both her pregnancy and her abuse?

In particular, young women of color, low-income women and those living in rural areas would be disproportionately harmed by Prop 4. These communities experience higher rates of teen pregnancy, and already have significant barriers to accessing quality reproductive health care, and may have more difficulty reaching a courthouse and navigating the court system. Prop 4 compounds each of these existing challenges.

Alternatively, the fear of parental retribution could push desperate young women to seek illegal abortions or to carry the fetus to term in secret without prenatal care and, in extreme cases, to abandon the baby after giving birth. These kinds of ordeals do not protect teens; they harm them.

We should be particularly wary of these unintended negative consequences because Prop 4 could be modified only by yet another ballot proposition, not through an open and accountable legislative process.

Having failed to convince voters in 2005 and 2006 that their initiatives were necessary, Prop 4 proponents have turned to misleading scare tactics in their campaign, such as TV ads suggesting parental notification might stop sexual predators. Parental notification for abortion has no relevance to this issue of preventing sexual abuse. Contrary to the claims made by its supporters, this initiative is not about protecting young women. Prop 4 is part of a broader strategy by anti-choice activists to incrementally erode reproductive rights and access to quality reproductive healthcare.

Dozens of medical, civil rights and community organizations oppose Prop 4. These include the California Nurses Association, the California Academy of Family Physicians and the California Teachers Association. Californians who are undecided about Prop 4 should check to see if the public figures and organizations they most respect support or oppose this ballot initiative.

Rather than turning to failed policies like Prop 4 that put teens at risk, parents and policymakers should focus on prevention by fostering meaningful family communication and providing appropriate comprehensive sexuality education that gives young people the tools to avoid unintended pregnancy and to thwart sexual abuse.

Many issues on the ballot this November will have important implications for women's health and rights. California voters, please consider Prop 4 high among them and reject it for a third, and hopefully final, time.

Judy Patrick is President & CEO of The Women's Foundation of California and has been a leader in the women's movement for over 25 years. Amanda Cassel is Program Officer for Public Policy at the Women's Foundation of California. The Women's Foundation of California is a statewide organization investing in women and girls to build a more just and equitable society for all.