Mandatory Parental Involvement Abortion Laws Miss the Point

Sarah* and her boyfriend, Will*, held hands as they sat across from me in the counseling room. The 17-year-olds both looked anxious and tired, explaining that they had driven all night to get to our health clinic in Maryland. Their home state required parental consent for abortion, and Sarah was raised in a very strict, very religious home. Her parents had told her many times before that they would kick her out if they found out she was having premarital sex, and Sarah was even more terrified about what would happen if they knew she was pregnant. Sarah and Will had no trusted adults to turn to for help. While they knew about the possibility of judicial bypass in their state (asking a judge for permission to have an abortion without parental involvement), Sarah doubted her confidentiality would be respected during that process.

So, Sarah and Will gave their parents an excuse for why they’d be away all weekend and drove over 10 hours to get to us, a clinic in a state where a physician can waive the parental notification requirement. They knew they weren’t ready to be parents. After the abortion, they made the long trip back home.

If I could trust Sarah, who had proven she was mature enough to drive almost a day round trip, find funding for the abortion, and bravely face a medical procedure she’d never had before because she knew this wasn’t the right time to be a parent, why couldn’t her state legislature trust her, too?

Thirty-seven states currently require some kind of mandatory parental involvement for minors seeking abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Some states allow grandparents or other adult family members to be involved, and some also waive the requirement entirely in the case of a medical emergency or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Then, a few weeks ago, Florida lawmakers passed a bill mandating that anyone under 18 would require a parent’s permission before being able to get an abortion. This would expand Florida’s current law, which requires parental notification before a minor can receive an abortion.

According to a 2017 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Association, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the American Public Health Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the AAP have all determined that minors shouldn’t be required to involve parents in the decision to get an abortion. The statement notes that research suggests “most minors 14 to 17 years of age are as competent as adults to provide consent to abortion, are able to understand the risks and benefits of the options, and are able to make voluntary, rational, and independent decisions.” It ultimately says minors should be encouraged to talk about the choice with trustworthy adults, parents or otherwise—not forced.

The level of involvement these laws call for varies from state to state. Some states require parental notification, meaning that a health care provider must at least attempt to give written or verbal notice of the young person’s intent to have an abortion to one or both parents. This typically happens 24 to 48 hours before the abortion, which leaves the door open for parents to coerce, threaten, or otherwise interfere in the young person’s decision.

Some states require one or both parents to provide consent for the abortion, which can include requirements for parental photo identification and proof of parenthood, like a birth or adoption certificate. (In some states, both notification and consent are required, while in other states, one or the other stands alone.) Eight states require the identification document to be notarized, which unnecessarily involves another person in the process in addition to adding time, expense, and the possibility that a notary will decline to help if they are anti-abortion. If a young person’s parents or guardians refuse to grant permission for an abortion, then one option is to travel to a state that does not require permission, as Sarah and Will did.

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