The Importance Of Alaska Striking Down Parental Consent For Abortion

In yet another victory for reproductive rights, the Alaska Supreme Court struck down an unconstitutional law requiring physicians to notify the parent or guardian of a minor seeking an abortion before performing the procedure.

The Court ruled that because the state only sought to compel counsel with parents for pregnant youth seeking to terminate and not those seeking to carry to term, the law violated the equal protection guarantees of the Alaska Constitution.

From the decision:

“[A]bsent a compelling interest in limiting minors’ pregnancy terminations and favoring their carrying to term — which the State does not assert — the State’s compelling interest in fostering parental involvement extends equally to all pregnant minors and that interest’s vindication does not justify treating the classes differently.”

Advocates have long been asserting that minors have the same right to bodily autonomy as adults — not just when their situation at home is abusive — and have been relentlessly fighting the laws in the 38 (now, 37) states with some form of parental involvement requirement for abortion care.

“A young woman seeking an abortion doesn’t need additional hurdles. She needs a doctor,” executive director of the ACLU of Alaska Joshua A. Decker said in a statement following the decision. “We have a responsibility to keep our daughters safe, and this law doesn’t do that. Healthy families don’t need government mandates to communicate. Instead, young women from families in crisis and young women in fear need safe, prompt, confidential health care, free of government-imposed restrictions.”

While this is an undeniably important victory, the ease with which anti-choice groups and politicians have imposed restrictions violating these very rights in over 75% of our state legislatures means much work is left to be done. Stigma about teens and sex and parenting come together to create a paternalistic view of what our young people should, can be, and are doing. A change in approach to how we push back on the stigma and the laws is overdue.

Reproductive justice advocate and president of Steadfast Strategies Morgan Meneses-Sheets told The Establishment that focusing on only horrifying stories of abuse to fight these laws has intensified the stigma of young parents as well as young people who choose to terminate a pregnancy.

“It seems like the only stories we tell to counter these laws are about the threat of abuse or young people being thrown out of their homes. There are young people for whom this is a reality, but violence is not the only reason for ensuring that teens have bodily autonomy,” said Meneses-Sheets.

“When I was a young person living at home, the idea of seeking consent for something my parents may not have approved of was not scary because I would be hurt, but because I was so afraid to disappoint them. Young people are capable of making decisions about their bodies and futures. We just need to make sure that they have the information and support that they need, instead of condescending or putting up barriers to health care.”

The laws vary from requiring the physician to notify the parent a day or two before the procedure to expecting minors to obtain notarized documentation — a huge hassle at any age — proving their guardian’s consent to obtain their desired abortion. In five states, both parents are to be notified.

All of the states with parental involvement laws have some form of judicial bypass, allowing the minor to appeal to a judge to allow them access to needed abortion care. They can seek a bypass for abuse, incest, or medical necessity. But, according to advocates, these processes are riddled with problems.

Cristina Aguilar, executive director for Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR), spoke with The Establishment about the state of youth access to abortion in her state, where judicial bypass for the parental notification law requires “clear and convincing evidence” of medical emergency or abuse, neglect, or incest.

“Let’s think about what it means to go before a judge,” said Aguilar. “Young people may have to miss time at school or work. It’s confusing and intimidating. It also puts judges in the place of acting like doctors or social workers, a role they are not trained for and that is just plain inappropriate.”

The judicial bypass process is time consuming and minors have fewer resources to begin with; logistics are a challenge and the later into a pregnancy, the more expensive the abortion. By the time a teen knows they’re pregnant, they can be very close to the point where an abortion goes from a few hundred dollars (again, potentially a large sum for anyone when unexpected) to $1500+ or more if travel is required for access to a doctor. Extending that time through court proceedings is more than inconvenient; it can put the procedure completely out of reach.

“In the real world, it is not easy for anyone to navigate the complexities of the court system,” said Aguilar. “People should not be forced into an at times confusing and complicated system just to get access to health care. This is made worse when studies have shown that some judges refuse to grant a bypass because of their own personal beliefs.”

What’s more, judges have been known to humiliate young people appearing before them to plead for access to health care. One of the more incomprehensible rulings in recent history happened in Nebraska in 2013. When a 16-year-old in foster care sought a judicial bypass at ten weeks along, her request was denied in astounding fashion.

As reported by Rewire:

“After questioning the girl and telling her ’when you have the abortion it’s going to kill the child inside you,’ Judge Bataillon denied the girl’s request, ruling that she did not fit any of the exceptions to the state’s parental consent statute . . . Furthermore, despite the fact that the minor testified that she effectively raised her younger siblings, was planning to graduate high school early, and had undergone extensive counseling related to her decision to terminate her pregnancy, the court found that she failed to establish that she was sufficiently mature enough to make the decision on her own.”

Aguilar recounted a similar case in her state from 2007 — also a 16-year-old, also ten weeks into her pregnancy.

“A Colorado judge denied a young woman a bypass saying she lacked the maturity to make the decision to seek an abortion,” said Aguilar. “Not only is it not the place of a judge to make such personal decisions, but it is also absurd to withhold a bypass based on the idea that she is not capable of choosing to seek an abortion and then force her to become a parent. She demonstrated her maturity when she realized that she did not have the support she needed and decided to seek an abortion.”

Exactly. Part of the growing up process is supposed to be learning to know what’s best for you. Yet, we deny minors agency over their bodies during a time they’re making numerous other heavy decisions like what they want to do with the rest of their lives, where/whether to go to college, and who they are.

“We should respect and support young people, not judge and demean them with meddlesome, medically unnecessary restrictions,” said Aguilar. “Young people are capable of making important decisions about their lives. They need information and support, not obstacles that are about scaring, intimidating and shaming them.”

Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, explained the scope of the problem with these laws.

“There are more states that have parental involvement laws than not,” said Hernandez. “This is especially problematic because many of the same states do not offer comprehensive sexuality education, nor proper support for young parents. It puts young people in the position of having no real options.”

Laws specifically legislating minors’ reproductive rights aren’t just a condescending violation of their rights; they make very little logical sense when you consider what they’re supposedly attempting to accomplish.

“Parental notifications are harmful because they try to legislate family relationships where they don’t already exist. Pregnancy is not the time to begin to have a relationship with a parent and can put many youth in serious danger if they don’t have supportive parents,” said Hernandez. “Young people are already at disadvantage to resources and many youth of color already have negative experiences with the criminal justice system, so the paperwork of the judicial bypass process can be especially demeaning. Young people should be trusted to make the decisions they need to make with their medical provider and whomever they trust in their lives.”

Both Hernandez and Meneses-Sheets are parents themselves; Meneses-Sheets said having children has only strengthened her career-long commitment to ending laws like parental notification.

“Being a mom to two girls has made me even more committed to getting rid of sham policies and pushing back against rhetoric that shames young women for having sex, judges people for seeking abortion and demonizes young parents,” she said. “As a parent, I work hard to build a foundation of mutual respect and trust with my children. I want them to feel like they can talk to me and that I will be there for them — and most young people do turn to their parents when it comes to big life decisions about their future. But if they felt like they could not come to me, I don’t want politicians interfering.”

This attitude or position is rare — even with many well-meaning reproductive rights advocates and organizations. Pregnant youth are often in a no-win situation; if they choose to parent, they are without resources — as Hernandez referenced — and if they choose to terminate, endless obstacles are placed in their way. People on both sides of the aisle and from all backgrounds may claim to prioritize our country’s children and teens, but the allocation of resources and language of our laws make it clear that they are either an afterthought or a tool to advance other agendas.

“Legislators don’t respect high school-aged young people because they aren’t in a position to vote yet. If they truly saw them as constituents they would favor their human rights over their guardians,” said Hernandez. “But it’s not just legislators — it’s our culture. Far too few people feel comfortable having conversations with youth about sex and sexuality, yet we are all inundated with sexual imagery through media constantly. We treat young people like problems to solve instead of equal people who contribute to society.”

It won’t strike down all the remaining laws on its own, but a commitment to treating young people like a valuable part of our culture is a necessary first step and it’s something all of us can do.

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Lead Image: Flickr / Elizabeth Briel