Parental consent laws gone amok

A Georgia mother gets jail for illegally signing a form so that her son's girlfriend could get an abortion.

Published June 12, 2008 8:30PM (EDT)

A Georgia case this week provides harrowing evidence of parental consent laws gone amok. Cindi Cook, 44, was charged with a misdemeanor for illegally signing a parental consent form claiming to be the mother of her son's 16-year-old girlfriend so the girl could obtain an abortion. The girl told her parents about the abortion a month after it occurred, and they promptly brought a lawsuit against Cook, who they claimed coerced their daughter into ending her pregnancy. Cook was sentenced to a year in prison.

The prosecutor in the case, Robert James, called Cook's conduct "reprehensible" and said, "I think it's inappropriate for one parent to make a decision about another parent's child, especially an abortion or any serious medical procedure." In a video, the father of the girl said that Cook took away his "right to be there and help our daughter when she needed us most."

Except that, from where I'm standing, it wasn't his daughter's boyfriend's mother who took away his "right" to be there. It was his daughter who, for reasons that remain unknown, decided not to tell her parents she was pregnant until after the abortion. If the prosecutors are correct, Cook's behavior wasn't so great either: According to them, she found out the girl was pregnant by snooping through her son's text messages, then urged her not to tell her parents and offered to pay for the abortion. The lawyer representing the girl and her family is also considering a civil suit against the clinic, under the dire accusation that it was "essentially soliciting underage girls seeking abortions."

Wonder where the actual (formerly) pregnant teen is in all of this? Yes, me too. As some Salon readers may know, I also became pregnant at age 16. I was lucky enough to have a mother who accompanied me to Planned Parenthood, where, contrary to the myth, I was counseled on parenting, adoption and abortion. We later met with the only doctor in our state who would perform abortions (no one else wanted to get involved in the sticky politics of it all). And when I decided to go through with the pregnancy, we hired that same doctor as my OB-GYN, in part because we wanted to demonstrate our respect to him for offering other women the right to end their own pregnancies.

But there are plenty of pregnant teenagers who, for whatever reason -- from fear of violence to shame to conflicting views on morality -- can't or don't wish to tell their parents. (In fact, over the years, several of my friends and family members and I have accompanied girls to their abortions when their own families did not support them. But before you call the cops, we're not talking about underage girls in states with parental consent laws.) If this girl had felt her father would "be there when she needed him most," my bet says she would have told him. Maybe the boyfriend's mother stepped in to support the girl when she knew her parents would not; maybe she used shame or intimidation to urge the girl to end her pregnancy. Maybe the girl freely terminated her pregnancy and was bullied into joining her parents' lawsuit; maybe she feels genuine regret over the situation. We shouldn't have to parse such motivations. No girl should be forced to undergo the physical, mental and emotional labor of pregnancy against her will. And no girl should be forced to abort a pregnancy. Either one can be a painful choice, and in the best cases, those girls who have to make it will do so with the unconditional support of those who love them. But in the end, it's really up to her alone. Our laws should reflect that.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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