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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