Why I Didn’t Sign Your Pro-Life Petition

You are family. You are someone whom I love, enjoy, and appreciate having in my circle. You recently presented me with a petition to push for a California law requiring that a physician notify a parent at least 48 hours before performing an abortion on any minor girl under the age of 18. I didn’t sign your petition, and I appreciate that you didn’t press the issue or ask me for an explanation. But I think you deserve one.

You are a committed, practicing Catholic, while I am not religious. I used to be (though not Catholic). As a non-religious person, I am free to arrive at my position on this issue by weighing the available evidence and filtering it (hopefully not too much) through my own intuition and values, without having to confront the dictates of an institution like the Catholic Church. It seems way harder to be in your shoes.

I’m not sure if your religion is the main reason you’re advocating for this law. If it is, and if you’re thinking mainly in terms of eternity and abstract morality, or in terms of your own eternal salvation (or damnation), then your own beliefs might be more important to you than understanding what effects actual abortion numbers here on earth, especially if these things are not aligned. If religion is the only place you’re coming at this from, then it might not really matter to you where I’m coming from, but I think I can safely assume there are other reasons you think this law would be a good idea, and I’ll just leave the topic of religious beliefs alone.

I’ll start with subjective, emotional reasons — how I feel about the idea of parental notification laws. Emotionally it does seem like a no-brainer if I only think about what I would want as a parent. I have a daughter, so this is not necessarily hypothetical. I would absolutely want to know if she became pregnant as a teenager and was seeking an abortion, though I hope that I am the kind of parent who won’t need to depend on a law that would force her to talk to me. I hope that my daughter would want to talk to me, or her mother, and I feel certain that I would be receptive, empathetic, and pragmatic. I would want the opportunity to comfort her, to support her, to talk through all the possible scenarios and paths forward. It’s painful to imagine otherwise. In theory I would like every family to have such an opportunity. I think that’s where you’re coming from too.

But I also know that there are families where this kind of conversation would be impossible or counter-productive at best, and dangerous at worst. I know families like that personally.

At the time you presented me with the petition, this was the extent of my thinking about parental notification laws in particular, but I’ll interpolate here to summarize (briefly I hope) my views on the abortion debate in general, which also factored into my reasons for not signing your petition.

First off, I appreciate where you’re coming from, and I’m with you. I don’t like the idea of abortion, and I wish there were fewer of them. Because I wish this, I have done enough research on the topic over the years to feel like my position on the issue is pretty settled. The ideal evidence in a case for or against legal abortions would be U.S. statistics before and after Roe v. Wade. Unsurprisingly we don’t have exact figures of U.S. abortion rates from before it was made legal — only estimates. But the estimates show that abortion rates did not really change after Roe v. Wade. What did change, however, is the number of abortion-related injuries and deaths, which decreased after abortion was made legal.

More recent worldwide data supports this. Abortion rates in Latin America — where abortion laws are currently the most restrictive in the world — are much higher than in North America and Western Europe. In 2008, the rate in Latin America was 32 per 1,000 women aged 15–44, vs. 19 in North America and 17 in Western Europe.

Furthermore, in countries where abortion rates have declined, it correlates strongly with better sex education, better education for girls in general, and the availability of contraception. These factors reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, and reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies appears to be the most effective way to reduce the number of abortions.

My conclusion from the above is that that restrictive abortion laws have negative to negligible effects on abortion rates, but they do have some collateral effects that are mostly negative. The negative effects on women’s health — e.g. from illegal abortions performed by non-competent providers — are well documented, but there are other effects that are harder to study. One that comes to mind is the probable number of children who suffer from neglect and abuse because they were not wanted. Related to this is the famous and controversial hypothesis that restrictive abortion laws are responsible for higher crime rates (PDF).

The bottom line is that even the most accommodating interpretation of the evidence would find the effects of restricting abortion to be ambiguous at best. So, in terms of “pro-life” advocacy, I think there are many other actions we can pursue and positions we can take that are less ambiguous, less contentious, and more certain to actually promote and protect life — assuming we define “life” broadly, and not just to mean (potential) life in the womb.

All of the above summarizes my position on this issue and adds up to why I didn’t sign your petition. But I admit I didn’t know much about the effects of parental involvement laws in particular, and you motivated me to do a little research on that topic.

So back to that, and specifically to the notion that some girls come from families where parental involvement in abortion decisions is impossible, counter-productive, or dangerous. You might point out here that the proposed California law includes a provision for something called judicial bypass. This would allow a judge to permit a minor to get an abortion without parental involvement. In fact, all parental involvement laws in the U.S. related to abortion must include such provisions.

In theory, the judicial bypass provisions were created to accommodate minors who come from families where parental notification would be a bad idea. The problem, unsurprisingly, is that minors — perhaps especially minors from these kinds of families — are reluctant and often unable to engage the services of an attorney. And even when they do, judges often rule that the minor in question is not mature enough to make a decision about abortion simply because she’s a minor, which makes the judicial bypass option pretty much pointless. And finally, even with minors who are granted a judicial bypass, the process can take so long that the abortion happens much later in the pregnancy.

But do parental notification laws prevent abortions?

Here the research is less conclusive, but they can’t prevent very many. The statistics say that about 7% of abortions in the U.S. are performed on minors, and studies suggest that the majority of pregnant minors considering an abortion in fact do talk to at least one parent. So these laws are aimed at reducing a fraction of 7% of abortions performed in the U.S. That alone makes it a less than compelling idea for me. Add to this the ironic fact that these laws target minors who in many cases have good reasons for not notifying their parents, and I’m even less compelled to consider it.

The bottom line is that I appreciate where you’re coming from, and I share the ultimate goal of reducing the number of abortions, but I don’t agree that parental notification laws are a good means to that end.

Further Reading

Abortion Laws around the World

Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide

Induced Abortion: Incidence and Trends Worldwide from 1995–2008 (Requires Login)

Facts and Consequences: Legality, Incidence and Safety of Abortion Worldwide

The Impact of Laws Requiring Parental Involvement for Abortion: A Literature Review (PDF)

State Policies In Brief: Parental Involvement in Minors’ Abortions (PDF)

Laws Restricting Teenagers’ Access to Abortion

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Shawn Smith’s story.