July 30, 2006

On the recent Senate vote

Love — blinding, misguided love — I would like to believe, is the chief reason why so many mothers and fathers support parental notification laws for girls seeking abortions and did not rise up and cry foul this week when a shockingly cruel and girl-hating piece of legislation passed in the Senate.

I was on the road with Jack Carter when I heard the results of the Senate vote making it illegal to take a minor across state lines for an abortion without notifying a parent (for the record, both our senators voted for this bill). And I kept thinking, wow, if only it were this easy, just tell a parent and everything will be fine. The thing is, if a girl feels that she can't tell her parents that she is pregnant, that family has worse problems than the mere fact that said daughter is pregnant. I realize that most families function well, with at least one parent able to handle problems like these. My daughter and I have a great relationship, she can tell me anything she wants to, though as a normal autonomous human being, there is a lot she keeps to herself. But we have had enough happen in our family that I know that if she were in bad circumstances, she would come to us for help. But not all families are like mine. Are we not going to protect girls who aren't fortunate enough to come from a loving, stable family? Are children really just property of their parents until they reach eighteen, no matter what poor excuses for human beings their parents might be? Of course, as soon as that kid turns eighteen our society is really good at cutting them loose - even when parents don't want to - witness that most health care plans that dump eighteen-year-old children from their parents' health care plan unless they are full-time college students (none of this part-time school, part-time work stuff!) But I digress...

Back to my point: Having seen some pretty sick and dysfunctional families in my lifetime, I couldn't figure out how this legislation does anything to protect minors in unspeakable circumstances. I came across this July 29th NYTimes commentary that puts it so much better than I. Published in full here under the fair use doctrine. From behind the firewall:
When the Parents Can’t Know
By JUDITH WARNER

Spring Adams, a 13-year-old sixth grader from Idaho, was impregnated by her father. On the morning she was to have an abortion, he came into her room and shot her.

This awful story, which was brought to the Senate floor this week by Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, isn’t the kind of thing that most parents, fortunately, can relate to. Most parents, surely, love their children and believe that if they learned that a daughter was pregnant and seeking an abortion, they’d treat her with kindness and concern.

Love — blinding, misguided love — I would like to believe, is the chief reason why so many mothers and fathers support parental notification laws for girls seeking abortions and did not rise up and cry foul this week when a shockingly cruel and girl-hating piece of legislation passed in the Senate.

The new bill, the Child Custody Protection Act, like its even more draconian House counterpart, would make it illegal for any adult other than a parent to take a minor across state lines to get an abortion. If the bill makes it into law, an incest victim, a rape victim or any other vulnerable pregnant teen who lives in a state that requires parental notification for abortion will no longer be able to seek the help of, say, a grandma, if she’s too frightened or ashamed to tell her parents that she is pregnant.

For many loving parents, this is all well and good. The problem is, though, that there are parents who do not behave toward their daughters with love. There are also teenage girls who don’t believe their parents’ love is strong enough to overcome whatever shame or disappointment or disgust they may feel upon learning that their daughter is pregnant and seeking to abort. Some teenage girls — even those from the “best” of homes — resort to desperate measures under such circumstances.

I think, first, of Becky Bell, who in 1988 died of an illegal abortion because she was too ashamed to comply with Indiana’s requirement that she notify her parents of her intent to end her pregnancy. Then, in 2004, there was the teenage girl in Michigan who, desperate to avoid telling her parents she needed an abortion, allowed her boyfriend to beat her belly with a baseball bat until she miscarried. She was six months pregnant.

Becky Bell’s parents and the parents of the boy in the baseball bat incident have since become outspoken critics of parental notification laws.

It does not particularly shock or surprise me that extreme right-wing ideologues would be willing to sacrifice girls’ lives on the road to their greater goal of making Roe v. Wade a dead letter; empowering girls to take control of their bodies and their lives — through, for example, reality-based sex education and access to contraception — has never been high on their list of priorities.

What I find much more disturbing now is that the mainstream public is going along for the ride. I think this is happening, in part, because radical Republicans — always so adept at finding the inner dark spots in Americans’ hearts and minds — have cleverly linked this particular anti-abortion effort to one of the most basic beliefs of mainstream parenting today: namely, that parents have a right to know everything about their children and to control every aspect of their lives.

It is not unreasonable for parents to want to know what’s going on with their kids. I would just suggest that parental rights have limits. Children — including teenagers — have a fundamental right to love and decent caretaking. That right sometimes conflicts with and outweighs their parents’ rights to control them.

That clash of rights is what plays out, often enough, when non-parents intervene to help minors cross state lines to get the medical attention they need. Most, I am sure, don’t do it because they want to meddle or lead young girls astray. They do it because the girls desperately need their help. No one knows how many of these girls are incest victims, fleeing fathers or stepfathers or brothers or uncles who abuse them in families where there’s no one stepping forward to protect them.

For our society to deny these girls access to freedom from forced pregnancy, I believe, is to abuse them further. I don’t want to be a party to that abuse, and neither, I imagine, would most loving parents — if only they’d think to extend their kind caretaking beyond the borders of their own backyards.

Judith Warner is the author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" and a contributing columnist for TimesSelect.

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