Alaska’s Parental Notification Law

Yesterday, in addition to a weird and unexpected primary upset (probably) in Alaska, the state also became the 35th state to require some kind of parental notification or consent for a minor to obtain an abortion. As Alex Gutierrez reported from the state itself, this measure was controversial. The total expenditures to fight and promote the measure combined totaled more than $1 million — that’s more than $2 per registered voter in the state.

According to the Anchorage Daily News article, “Supporters won over voters with the argument that parents have the right to know if their minor daughter undergoes an abortion. It’s a potentially risky medical procedure, and parents need to be informed in case of physical complications or depression, said initiative backers.” But as Persephone wrote when she dispelled many anti-choice myths about abortion over at the Abortion Gang, The Guttmacher Institute notes that fewer than .03 percent of women end up going to the hospital due to complications of abortion. Abortion in the first trimester also has “virtually no long-term risk of such problems as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.” That makes abortion far safer than most everyday activities and plenty of medical procedures.

Guttmacher also has has a really good rundown of the state-by-state breakdown [PDF] of parental notification laws in the states. “In light of two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that prohibit parents from having absolute veto over their daughters’ decision to have an abortion, many states require the consent or notification of only one parent, usually 24 or 48 hours before the procedure,” the fact sheet says. Still, 20 of those now-35 states require parental consent. Two states, Mississippi and North Dakota, require both parents to consent to the abortion.

Parental consent and notification laws are one of those things that are politically popular among conservative — and even moderate — voters. What I find dangerous about the law is that it taps into a stereotypical parental protective instinct, sort of a mom- or dad-knows-best mentality. Fundamentally, though this simply isn’t practical or good policy.

In some instances, girls and young women seek abortions because they have been sexually abused by one of their parents. A law that requires both parents to consent could potentially put a minor in an abusive relationship in danger. Opponents of the new Alaska law fear the new law cause confusion and teens seeking an abortion might see the restriction a straight-up ban. For some teens, seeking an abortion is terrifying enough without piling on restrictions. Furthermore, Alaska is an extremely remote place — getting to another state with better abortion access might be particularly difficult and expensive.

Such laws fundamentally make a lot of assumptions about how families are structured in America. Not every family has a mom, dad, two children, and a dog. More than a quarter of American children grow up in a single-parent household. (Of those, one-quarter live in poverty.) Plenty of children have fraught or dangerous relationships with their parents. Others live in custody of their grandparents or in foster care. By making laws on the assumption of nuclear families, we’re potentially putting young people in danger.

I’m not saying that girls shouldn’t tell their parents if they’re having an abortion. Oftentimes moms or dads can be really supportive in helping their children through difficult decisions. When I went to my first abortion speak out earlier this year, several of the women talked about how their mothers took them to the clinic and sat with them through the procedure. But mandating such an interaction by law isn’t taking into account the diversity of America. We can’t make laws assuming that children are growing up in fundamentally safe, cookie cutter families.

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27 comments for “Alaska’s Parental Notification Law

  1. PrettyAmiable
    August 25, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    What irritates me is that in legislating morality for the under-18 crowd, their voices are necessarily silenced because they can’t even vote.


  2. Heather
    August 25, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Could someone explain the difference between “consent only” and “notification and consent”?> It seems like it would be necessary to notify a girl’s parent(s) in order to obtain their consent. (I’m sorry if this is totally obvious; I’m drained from exam studying.)

  3. August 25, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    This is probably the best post on parental notification ever:

    Also, I think parental notification laws are spectacularly asinine in light of the fact that if a minor has an actual BABY, they now have legal jurisdiction over that child, but somehow not their own body?

  4. Kaija
    August 25, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Agreed. Parental notification laws are misleading b/c families that are functional and have good communication don’t need notification requirements and families that are not working well are not going to be improved by forced “notification” or confrontation. Most of the time, a girl who does not want to inform her parents has a good reason for that and even if she doesn’t, it’s her call in her life, not that of the government or the voters.

    Harriet J writes about this from the very real perspective of a social worker/social services employee:

  5. Kaija
    August 25, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Part I of Harriet J’s portrait of the reality of parental notification is here:

    These posts really opened my eyes as to the reality vs the rose-colored glass view of this “harmless compromise”.

  6. Bitter Scribe
    August 25, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Whenever anyone tries to pretend that they’re motivated in this solely by the desire to foster good communication between minor girls and their parents, I ask them:

    “Suppose you had a young girl who was pregnant and wanted to keep the baby. She’s afraid to tell her parents because she thinks they’ll try to pressure her into having an abortion. Would you make her tell them?”

    This is about creating another roadblock to abortion. Nothing more, nothing less.

  7. scootermom
    August 25, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Young women need parental consent to have an abortion, but not to give birth or place the child for adoption. This makes no sense.

    A parent can force their daughter to have a child, but can’t force her to have an abortion. This makes no sense.

    Young women are responsible enough to become a mother, but not responsible enough to chose to have a safe medical procedure. This makes no sense.

    I don’t get it. Oh, wait, I do too.

    Abortion is bad, and must be stopped. That’s what its really about.

  8. Kay
    August 25, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    @Heather: Your question stumped me too so I went ahead and called someone over at Guttmacher, Elizabeth Nash, who has been a saint in answering questions like this for me in my reporting.

    Basically there are four states that have both consent and parental notification laws: Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. In two of those states, Oklahoma and Texas, they passed a notification law first and then a consent law later, never bothering to repeal the original notification law. In the other two states, they passed a combination law that requires both notification and consent. According to Nash, this is basically pure bureaucracy that just adds another step. Not only does the doctor have to go out and find the parent to notify him or her, the doctor also has to be sure to secure consent. As @Bitter Scribe said, “This is about creating another roadblock to abortion. Nothing more, nothing less.”

  9. Connie
    August 25, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Once again it’s government intruding on the lives of young women and basically leaving young men alone. Conservative Alaskans are pro-fetus, but not pro-life; once that baby is born, support systems are practically non-existent. This is a state (I live here) that abhors government intrusion in every way except when it comes to the bodies of women. The hypocrisy is amazing.

  10. August 25, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    When I started this post, I was thinking, “Well, hey. What’s so bad about getting consent and giving notification?”

    By the end, though, I’d changed my mind.

    I don’t have a whole lot to say about the post, because I need to read it again and process it before I can form a real opinion. But I wanted to say thank you for presenting it in such a way that made me understand why I wasn’t correct in my initial thought.

  11. Haley
    August 25, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    A couple years ago, when I was about 15, I remember my mom being really upset that another state had passed a parental notification law. I was confused at the time, because I assumed that as a mother of teenage girls she would of course want to be notified. She explained that a lot of girls live in situations where if their parents were notified they were having an abortion they would be abused, kicked out, or forced to carry to term.

    She said that you can’t legislate a good relationship between parents and children, and that she hoped I trusted her enough that if I ever needed an abortion I would tell her and she would support me in whatever I chose.

  12. a lawyer
    August 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    I’m a bit confused about how parental notification and consent laws are related to the normative nuclear family. Why don’t basically the same considerations apply to single parents, grandparents, foster parents, and so on? They all have custody of the girl and are responsible for her health and well-being.

    Face it, what’s really going on with these laws is that a large number of parents are very anti-abortion and girls will refrain from getting one if their parents know out of fear of punishment.

  13. Sofia
    August 25, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    I actually live in Alaska so I saw this whole thing go down. it’s all really upsetting and hits close to home because I have a sexually active 16 year old sister… my parents would more than support her getting an abortion (they’d encourage it), but not every young girl is as lucky as she is.
    the teen can go in front of a judge to a) argue she is mature enough to have an abortion without parental support or b) claim abuse at the home. a is ridiculous because judges are human and have their own human bias. b is even more ridiculous because for one, family secrets are strongholds. they know how to hide things. and two, coming forward about abuse is so extremely difficult, especially for scared pregnant teenagers. if it was easy, they would come out before long before. this can potentially lead to the teenager putting herself in dangerous situations to end the pregnancy.
    I’m really sad about the whole thing but I’m not surprised at all it passed. I’d see at least 20 small to large “Alaskans for parental rights” (???!) signs driving to work every day.

  14. james
    August 25, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    “Also, I think parental notification laws are spectacularly asinine in light of the fact that if a minor has an actual BABY, they now have legal jurisdiction over that child, but somehow not their own body? akeeyu”

    I’ve heard that argument before on the basis that pregnancy is emancipating; but I think the problem is that if pregnancy is emancipating then surely the parents have got to be notified of the emancipation.

  15. Zes
    August 25, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Kaija – amen. If you aren’t one of the first people your minor kid voluntarily calls when she’s pregnant and considering an abortion, then probably your relationship with her is deeply flawed, and the state is neither obliged nor able to change that. As a teen I and all my friends knew our parents/guardians were the first port of call if that particular storm ever arose, and that includes some girls with otherwise poor relations with their parents/guardians.

    Aren’t those pushing this often the same people that would go absolutely apeshit if the state meddled in their parent-child relationships in any other way? Wouldn’t they call that the nanny state or even, gasp, socialism?

  16. William
    August 25, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Face it, what’s really going on with these laws is that a large number of parents are very anti-abortion and girls will refrain from getting one if their parents know out of fear of punishment.

    Pretty much everyone here understands that the entire point of these laws is to threaten girls with getting kicked out, beaten up, ostracized, or otherwise treated like garbage for daring to not be their father’s property. I’m not sure what you’re suggesting we ought to face…

  17. August 26, 2010 at 5:09 am

    I agree with what has been said already. You can’t legislate good communication between parents and teens. I am glad that, in the Netherlands, dual consent (parents/guardian and child) is required for 12-16 year olds for most medical procedures (16+ teens are treated as adults medically), but abortion is an exception because the child’s interests are so important that you can’t require that parents give consent. This post once again reminded me of why, and strengthened my opposition to parental notification/consent laws (which I used to support).

  18. Deltabob
    August 26, 2010 at 5:44 am

    I am on the fence about this.

    *ducks all the heavy objects flying in my general direction*

    At the base of the matter, an abortion is (in most instances) a non-emergency medical procedure. I do believe that the guardians of a minor should be notified prior to a medical procedure being performed on the minor for whom they are legally responsible.

    Yes, an abortion is a very charged procedure – there are a lot of reasons it could be dangerous for the guardians to know about it.

    However, I think some of the same people who are outraged at a notification law might be more outraged if a doctor performed a different non-emergency medical procedure on their child or ward without any notification or consent.

  19. PrettyAmiable
    August 26, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Deltabob: non-emergency medical procedure

    One that has a .03% likelihood of complications? I feel like most actions that the ward engages in has a .03% chance of the ward landing in the hospital.

    Carrying to term? Also has risks that won’t be properly addressed if the kid doesn’t want to tell their parents.

    Back-alley abortions, which is what I imagine some of these people will do if they’re forced into telling their parents especially in abusive situations, have a significantly higher risk of complications.

    So, no. I don’t know that I would be upset about my kid getting an abortion without telling me – though I would hope that our relationship would be better than that. Shrug!

  20. Marle
    August 26, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Deltabob, while abortion is not often an emergency, it is always on a timeframe. A 14 year old who wants breast implants (a non-emergency medical procedure I can imagine parents getting outraged about) will probably have no consequences if she waits until she’s 18. A 14 year old who wants an abortion will give birth if she can’t get one. That’s really life-changing, even if she does choose adoption. I think that a girl should always have the right to *not* give birth. Seriously, who wants teenage girls to become mom, especially when they don’t want to be? Parental notification gets in the way of that, because if teenage girls don’t want to (or can’t) talk to their parents, there’s no law that can get around that.

  21. preying mantis
    August 26, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    “I don’t know that I would be upset about my kid getting an abortion without telling me – though I would hope that our relationship would be better than that.”

    I’d be upset about my kid getting an abortion or pre-natal care or STD treatment or contraception or whatever without telling me. But I’d be fucking furious if I found out that they’d felt they couldn’t tell me, for whatever reason, and consequently been denied treatment. Them getting what they need in a timely fashion comes first, second, and third in this scenario.

  22. Deltabob
    August 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Thanks Marle, the timeframe concern is something I hadn’t considered.

    Rather than a breast implant, I was thinking more along the lines of a D&C as a similar procedure.

  23. William
    August 26, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    I do believe that the guardians of a minor should be notified prior to a medical procedure being performed on the minor for whom they are legally responsible.

    Ok…I’ll ask. Why? Really, have you thought that through in the context of what we’re discussing?

    I know, I know, parents are a part of their children’s lives and blah blah blah, but what overriding, universal purpose is served by parents getting to know what kind of procedure their children have?

    The answer I hear most often is something along the lines of “so parents can help their children make difficult decisions.” Maybe there might be something about support in there, but if we’re talking about the kinds of women who aren’t going to want their parents notified we likely aren’t talking about women from a supportive family. No, what we’re talking about is parents involved. Which suggests parents having the ability to influence the decision. Ultimately, following that line of logic leads you to a question: do you think parents ought to have the power to either prevent their children from having an abortion or to punish them for having one over their objections? Thats what notification laws are about, they’re passed by legislators who lack the ability to pass consent laws but who realize that threatening young people with being abandoned or shunned is a very good way to keep some of them from having abortions.

    This isn’t about parents, this is about intimidation and punishment. This is about using social coercion and the threat of violence to police bodies.

  24. Marle
    August 26, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    Deltabob: Thanks Marle, the timeframe concern is something I hadn’t considered.Rather than a breast implant, I was thinking more along the lines of a D&C as a similar procedure.  

    D&C is a type of abortion. Unless your referring to something different?

  25. Julie
    August 26, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Marle, you can have a D&C for non abortive purposes- although it’s pretty rare! I have a friend with endometriosis who had one before trying to get pregnant, because it helped remove excess tissue.

    I can sort of see what Deltabob is saying, up to a point. Of course I want to know if my child is undergoing a medical procedure- I mean, I had my adenoids out and the risk of complications was pretty minimal… but I was sore afterward, I was tired, etc… and it was really nice to walk out and have my husband waiting for me to drive me home and get me food. I would want to be there with my child so I could help them, support them, hold their hand, whatever. I’d want to make sure the doctor doing whatever procedure they needed was competent, I’d want to pay for their medical care so that they didn’t have to, etc… Ideally, yes I want to know. However, my child comes first. Her needs, her wants, her well being comes first. I would want to be by her side if she needed an abortion and hold her hand and drive her home and buy her pain medicine and snacks and whatever else she needed. But if she feels like she can’t come to me for whatever reason, I’ll take her not telling me over her going to a back alley abortionist. I’d rather she go through a safe abortion without me than get a call that she has a septic infection. It’s not about me, its not about my feelings. It’s about what my daughter needs to be safe. And honestly, it just doesn’t make sense to compare it to anything else. Why wouldn’t my daughter tell me she needed her tonsils out? Or her broken leg set? It’s just silly to bring those things in.

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