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Abortion: Is Required Parental Notification a Good Idea?

Many Californians are so focused on some issues in the upcoming elections that they are avoiding others of equal importance. One of these is Proposition 4, which would amend the state’s constitution so as to require physicians to notify the parents of underage women before giving them abortions.

This proposition is supported by some religious groups and by many parents whose initial reaction often is, “Of course, we have the right to know what’s happening in our daughters’ lives!” But it is opposed by almost every professional organization that deals with these young women because they hold that it would not be good for society as a whole.

The result is a conceptual standoff between the ethics of individual rights and the ethics of the common good. Such tensions lead to questions most of us would rather not face. Should I be willing to give up my rights if doing so would enhance the entire community? Or should I be prepared to sacrifice what’s best for society on the altar of my individual rights?

My view is that neither question should be answered with an unqualified “yes.” Individual rights and the common good are both important and we must decide on a case-by-case basis which to give more weight, even if only slightly so.

In this case, I put more emphasis on the common good. This means that I plan to vote against Proposition 4 although I believe that when my children were minors I had a right to know if they went to a doctor and what happened.

But like all others this right would have been presumptive, not absolute. Although it is true that they are very important and that those who would restrict them in the name of the common good bear a very heavy burden of proof, even the rights to speak freely and worship as one prefers are restricted to some extent. This would seem to be so in this case as well.

The five reasons I oppose Proposition 4 follow. Each is preceded with “I believe” or “It seems to me” or something similar.

  1. We should not use constitutional amendments to resolve differences like this. Constitutions establish organizational entities, specify their constituents as well as their rights and responsibilities, establish principles and structures for governance, and identify their various offices. Constitutions are largely procedural. For the most part, they tell us how to arrive at our conclusions, not what that they should be. Proposition 4 goes too far in the other direction.
  2. Those who promote Proposition 4 have not established that we need it. Although it is a bit confusing because in England there is public policy with the same label, the advocates of Proposition 4 often call it “Sarah’s Law.” Just who Sarah is—whether in fact she lived in California and was a single minor when she had an abortion that took her life— have become matters of public debate. But even if its proponents have not convincingly identified the “real” Sarah,” it is difficult to doubt that the illness or death of some young woman might have been prevented if her parents had been notified before she had an abortion. The questions are: How many cases like this one are there in California each year? Why do they occur? What are the best ways of preventing them?

    The story the proponents of Proposition 4 tell about Sarah is moving; however, cold it may seem, public policies must also be based upon statistics. One, two, or even several stories are not enough. We need to see the numbers and understand what they mean.

  3. The alternatives to notifying someone other than the young woman’s parents are unrealistic. The fact that those who promote this proposition recognize that in some cases it would be inadvisable, or even very dangerous, for a doctor to notify a young woman’s parents is a good thing. The fact that they specify that in such cases the doctor may notify some other relative is commendable. Making it possible for the young woman to petition a court is also helpful. Yet it is easy to imagine a situation in which a young woman has no relative the doctor can safely notify. It is also possible to envision reluctance on her part to petition a court, or even a lack of the required knowledge and confidence in the judicial system.

    These difficulties can be counted upon to increase sickness and death following abortions as desperate and fearful young women who do not know how to manipulate the system turn to unqualified and unscrupulous entrepreneurs for their abortions.

  4. Proposition 4 will be a toothless tiger for those who can manipulate the system. All it requires is that the doctor send a letter by both regular and certified mail to the young woman’s parents, or appropriate substitute. After forty-eight hours, the doctor may perform the abortion without confirming that her parents have received the letters and have had an opportunity to discuss things with her. Proposition 4 does not require parental permission. It does not even require confirmed parental notification. It mandates presumed parental notification!

    It will be very easy for young women to give doctors the addresses of friends or other relatives, or even post office boxes, where these letters can be retrieved without their parents knowing that they had been mailed. Neither the doctor nor the staff—social workers, perhaps—are required to do anything to prevent this and other evasions.

  5. Proposition 4 will harm young women who do not know how weak it is. They will be more vulnerable than the others, more desperate, more subject to the evil whims of those who would exploit them in every way.

    Young women from comfortable circumstance who know their way around will hardly be inconvenienced by it. But once again, young women who have little money and even less institutional savvy, even though they have figured out how to survive despite their disadvantages, will bear the brunt.

Proposition 4 strikes me as a mean-spirited legal joke that will pose no difficulties for comfortably situated young women while making the lives of many others more miserable than they already are.

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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