Let me put it out there: I am a feminist. I am pro-choice. And I am voting for California's Proposition 85, which would require physicians to notify the parents or guardians of a minor at least 48 hours before performing an abortion. (It's worth noting that not all of my colleagues at Broadsheet agree with me -- see previous coverage.)
In matters pertaining to sex, people have the tendency to let their hearts rule their heads. The fact is that every other surgical procedure requires parental notification, and I don't see a good reason to make an exception in this case, especially since abortion carries unique emotional risks in addition to the physical ones attendant on every medical procedure.
I don't know of any way to accurately and objectively gauge the emotional repercussions of having an abortion. For every story in which a woman moved on with a sigh of relief, there seems to be another story of lifelong guilt and regret. Anecdotal evidence aside, though, I think it's safe to say that getting an abortion isn't like having a tooth pulled. If abortion is to be treated differently than other medical procedures, it should be in the form of more protections, rather than fewer, particularly when it comes to minors. The very concept of a minor, the defining of an age of majority, came about in order to afford juveniles special protections. I guess I'm a social conservative: I just don't think teenagers should be making decisions like this on their own, or that the government has the right to interfere with how families run themselves.
Granted, cases of abuse in the family do occur -- and some parents might become abusive upon hearing that their teenager is pregnant. According to research conducted by the Bixby Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy at the University of California at San Francisco, 61 percent of teenagers carrying an unplanned pregnancy tell their parents in advance of an abortion, and over 30 percent of those who don't cite fear of physical harm or other repercussions. But "other repercussions" strikes me as an awfully broad category, potentially encompassing both legitimate abuse and more run-of-the-mill consequences like yelling or getting grounded. Parental notification laws assert parents' rights to parent their children.
Of course, not every parent is perfect. The hoped-for ideal would be a parent who is as compassionate and well informed as a trained guidance counselor, minister or Planned Parenthood volunteer. But even less than perfect parents have a unique advantage over trained professionals: They have known and cared for their teenager for far longer. And in cases of teenagers coping with abuse, a court can permit a minor to get an abortion without parental notification. A court can also begin the process of removing the teenager from an abusive situation.
Here's an interesting side effect of abortion-notification laws: A study reported in Slate speculates that the recent rise in teen oral sex may be attributable to teens assessing risks like AIDS, unintended pregnancy and their parents finding out and deciding to have less risky oral sex instead. The study was conducted by Jonathan Klick of the Florida State University College of Law and economist Thomas Strattman of George Mason University, and propounded the theory of the rational teen sex drive. Parental notification laws make penetrative sex riskier, since they make it harder to terminate an unintended pregnancy and increase the likelihood of one's parents finding out, and researchers observed that the rates of gonorrhea among teens dropped when parental notification laws were established. As Slate's Tim Harford summarized, "When it becomes more troublesome to get an abortion, teenagers seem to cut back on unprotected sex."
That parental notification laws seem to act as a deterrent is a lucky, but unintended, consequence. At its heart, however, California's Proposition 85 protects the interests of minors by preserving the role of parents or guardians in their lives. Whether a minor decides to continue her pregnancy or not, she should have a parent or trusted guardian beside her.