Center for American Progress

Legal Child Abuse: The Harm of Parental Involvement Laws

No one wants to see a teenager be trapped by poverty, abuse, or neglect. Yet, laws concerning the rights of pregnant minors to access certain medical care do just that.

Since the late 1970s, state legislatures have been passing state “parental involvement” laws, which mandate that a parent or legal guardian be notified of or give consent for a pregnant minor’s decision to seek an abortion. Texas has one of the most recent laws, now five years old, and as of June 5, 2005, its law changed from requiring notification to mandating consent. Congress is now in the process of creating a nationwide parental notification law through the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (CIANA). CIANA also would make it illegal for anyone to help a teen obtain an abortion in another state without satisfying her home state’s law. Supporters of this bill generally think such a law will protect children. However, before the Senate votes on CIANA or similar legislation, lawmakers should carefully consider the damage parental involvement laws have done to pregnant youth in Texas.

Mandated notification by Texas clinics did not result in an increase of actual parental involvement in teenagers’ decisions regarding abortion, as the law intended. Instead, the state’s parental notification law targeted youth whom some lawmakers claim they did not intend to harm. Before the law’s enactment in January 2000, Texas abortion providers reported that 80-95 percent of minors involved a parent in the decision to terminate a pregnancy. The ones who did not had compelling reasons. For instance, some parents physically abused, abandoned, or disowned their daughters when they found out they were pregnant. These youth understood that a family that is unable to communicate due to a significant degree of dysfunction, separation, and/or abuse is unlikely to respond appropriately during such an important life decision.

If at least one parent cannot or will not give written consent to the clinic, a minor may seek a judicial bypass waiver by demonstrating that she is mature enough to make the decision, that the abortion would be in her best interest, or that notification will lead to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. However, although Texas has had over five years to implement a fair system, minors seeking judicial bypass still experience challenges in locating effective counsel and struggle with confidentiality and due process issues in local courthouses. Judges have been known to deny waivers even when the petitioner has met more than one of the three alternative grounds that qualify for a waiver. If the waiver is denied, the minor has a right to appeal. However, when a minor seeks legal relief through the courts, her abortion procedure is delayed, increasing the costs, and at times, the risk of complications in terminating a pregnancy at a more progressed stage. For these and other reasons, some youth consider seeking abortion services out of state, in Mexico, or under unsafe and illegal circumstances.

No population of minors is exempt from this law. Not teens removed by the state from their homes for family violence. Not victims of sexual assault whose parents would not believe they were raped and would force them to continue the pregnancy as a punishment for “youthful indiscretion” or due to certain religious beliefs. Not teens who have already given birth and are either active parents or have given babies up for adoption in the past, some forced to do so by their parents. Not orphans or other youth whose parents are missing or incarcerated. All minors must find ways to comply with this very harmful law.

In the last few years, problems have grown regarding pregnant youth along the Mexican border, which some activists have attributed to Texas’ parental involvement statutes. Despite the passage of a “Baby Moses” law, which allows a mother to leave her newborn infant at designated safe havens like hospitals or churches without legal repercussions, the number of abandoned infants has risen, resulting in their deaths and the prosecution of their teen mothers. More minors have sought second trimester procedures after illegal ones obtained over the border earlier in their pregnancies failed. And there have been increased reports of abnormalities in infants born to immigrant teens along the border. When tests were run to see if the babies had been affected by environmental causes such as water pollution, medical professionals found that 25 percent of the babies were the result of incest.

Mothering with dignity? Becoming a parent when emotionally, physically, and financially ready? Not for these youth. Deciding when to become a parent or whether to have another child has been taken out of their hands entirely. Because of parental involvement laws, reproductive options are not a reality for teens whose parents seek to punish their behavior rather than support or protect them. Just like in any other domestic violence dynamic, the decision to make a teen bear a child against her better judgment is more about power and control than anything else. Where is the dignity in becoming a parent amid domestic violence, sexual assault, and economic abuse? In essence, states have passed laws that allow parents to abuse their daughters and neglect their emotional health. And now Congress wants to do the same.

Diana Philip is the co-founder of Jane’s DUE PROCESS, a statewide nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to pregnant minors, and served as executive director for its first four years. Ms. Philip directs the Legal Access Initiative for the Women’s Advocacy Project, which provides legal services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault throughout Texas. She also works as a patient advocate for Whole Woman’s Heath, an abortion clinic in Austin, as well as a consultant for the national nonprofit The Abortion Conversation Project.

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