This past weekend, New Zealand found itself in the midst of a loud public debate over the case of a teenager who procured an abortion with the support of her school counselor, without informing her parents. The parents were angry, and much was said about the ethics, propriety, and legality of the situation.
The main issue was not whether abortion should be legal there (it is) or whether the state may be justified in limiting access (it does). The question was whether parents have a right to interfere with (or at least know about) their daughter's decision. New Zealand law says they don't. In the United States, over 40 state legislatures and the Supreme Court have come to the opposite conclusion.
In the United States, as in New Zealand, the arguments for parental involvement laws include an assertion that they contribute to lower teenage pregnancy and abortion rates, and that they improve family communication. There is no evidence to support this. The clearest documented impact in the United States of these laws has been an increase in the number of minors traveling outside their home states to get abortions in states that don't mandate parental involvement or have less restrictive laws.
Moreover, the American Academy of Pediatrics has noted that parental involvement laws don't promote family communication, though they increase the risk of harm to the adolescent by delaying access to appropriate medical care. In fact, most teenagers who seek abortions -- in particular younger teens -- voluntarily seek their parents' involvement, regardless the law. And research has shown that adolescents who are strongly opposed to informing parents for fear of a negative or coercive response tend to predict family reactions accurately.
A stronger argument for parental involvement is that an abortion is a serious medical procedure, and the child should be able to count on her family for support. This is indisputable. What is under dispute in the recent debate in New Zealand -- and what should be under dispute in the United States -- is whether these laws help increase that support, or whether they can have the opposite effect. Just because the U.S. Supreme Court has said that parental involvement laws are constitutional doesn't mean they are helpful either in preventing pregnancy -- or in helping a young girl who finds herself pregnant.
Many American politicians decry the U.S. teenage pregnancy rate, which is roughly three times the rates in Germany and France, more than four times the Netherlands rate, and 50 percent higher than New Zealand's.
There are good reasons to seek to prevent teenage pregnancy. First of all, early pregnancy can have adverse physical health consequences. And having to care for a child affects access to education, employment, and public life for the young mother--and perhaps for her baby as well. Changes in the mother's life from an unplanned pregnancy can be surprising and even oppressive. And teenage pregnancies are more often than not unintended.
There are plenty of good answers to what to do about high teenage pregnancy rates. They include ensuring that teenagers both know how to prevent pregnancies (scientifically based sex education) and have access to the means to do so (modern contraception). There are also more intangible factors, such as positive body image for girls, policies that promote gender equality, and greater openness about sex. Studies have shown that countries that score high on all of these points tend to have lower levels of teenage pregnancy and in many cases abortion.
The United States has a long way to go to ensure access to age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education and modern contraception, and U.S. teens could certainly use support in developing positive notions of their bodies, gender equality and healthy sexuality.
But rather than investing in these areas, state legislatures are marching forward with more and more legal restrictions on access to information and abortions, including parental notification or consent, and mandatory waiting periods and sonograms. These laws are heavy in government intervention and don't deter teen pregnancies.
U.S. legislatures would be better off considering what policies would best protect the rights of the pregnant girl to have the health information and services she needs, to be consulted and heard in matters that concern her, and to have her best interests protected by the state. These questions were raised this weekend in New Zealand. It is high time they are raised in the United States as well.
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