Pro-Choice Pols Shouldn’t Pander on Parental Notification

Amanda Marcotte

Barack Obama's pandering on parental notification laws may never result in any legislation, but floating the idea that "even liberals" accept that it's desirable to force 12-year-olds to give birth against their will degrades the national discourse on abortion.

If I may venture an opinion: it seems that Barack Obama is receiving more scrutiny on reproductive rights issues than either Hillary Clinton or John McCain. I suspect that's because his opinions on these issues have received less coverage in the past than either of the other candidates, and, subsequently, supporters and detractors alike have reason to draw attention to his views.

Some confusion has arisen over Obama's exact stance on parental consent or notification laws (which are in practice something close to the same thing). The source of the confusion: Most of Obama's public statements, including the questionaire his campaign staff answered for Rewire, indicate a stalwart opposition to parental notification laws. Unfortunately, as Politico reported, Obama has, at other times, backed away from the commonsense anti-notification position.

Consider the question of whether minors should be required to get parental consent – or at least notify their parents – before having abortion.

The first version of Obama's [1996 Illinois voter] questionnaire responds with a simple "No."

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The amended version, though, answers less stridently: "Depends on how young – possibly for extremely young teens, i.e., 12- or 13-year-olds."

The article then links to the Rewire questionaire, Obama's most recent statement on the issue, which the writer Kenneth Vogel says is more nuanced, but doesn't elaborate on. Unfortunately, most people will probably not click the link, or they'd find out that "more nuance" means "a consistent stance with his past statements opposing government obstacles between minor women and health care." The statement both upholds a young woman's right to seek health care without involving abusive family members, and jabs at extreme bills that lack judicial bypass, i.e. laws that guarantee that girls living in the worst households be offered up for violent abuse because they behaved like 95% of Americans do and had sex outside of marriage. This is consistent with his voting record, including a federal notification law.

The statement about "12- or 13-year-olds" was unfortunate, but interestingly, not overly relevant in a Presidential race, because the President would not write such legislation. (See more here, if you have questions about why.) He's certainly never spear-headed any such legislation, and he can comfortably speculate about a law that affected only 12 and under, knowing that the people who do write this legislation will likely aim for the 18-year-old cut-off, because they're motivated by maximizing the number of forced childbirths more than any genuine concern about young women's health. In other words, while it's unfortunate that Obama pandered on this issue, we can characterize this as grade A pandering, backed by no substance.

The problem with substance-free pandering, of course, is that while the pandering politician may never have to put his money where his mouth is, floating the idea that "even liberals" accept that it's desirable to force 12-year-olds to give birth against their will degrades the national discourse on this issue. But it's all too easy for politicians looking to pander on this issue, because it's not well-understood that the function of parental notification laws is to increase the number of young teenagers giving birth. The problem is that anti-choicers have managed to frame the issue in their own, dishonest terms. They play at the notion that this is about making sure that parents are part of their daughters' decision-making process, which makes it very hard to come out against them.

But, as is all too common with anti-choicers, what they say is not what they mean, and it's safer to judge them by the results of their behavior rather than their self-serving rhetoric. Parental notification laws are popular because they're sold as parental control. But I'd bet most parents would rather have the right to veto childbirth more than to veto abortion, considering that most parents don't sit around dreaming up teenage motherhood as the life they want for their little girls. These bills only give parents the right to prevent abortion, so one is forced to conclude these bills are less about parental control and more about maximizing the number of teenagers giving birth.

Which isn't to say that I think parents should have a right to force abortion, either. But if we embrace the fact that bills such as the latest one proposed in California are about forced childbirth more than anything else, we have a frame that works better than haggling over a parent's right to control her daughter's medical care. Forced childbirth is the perfect frame for ads against these bills. Picture a series of posters and TV ads contrasting a girl's hopes for herself and her parents forcing her to give birth. "I was going to graduate high school and go to college, but my parents made me have a baby instead." "I was going to go all-star this year, but my parents made me go through labor instead." "It was Bob who raped me, but my father who made me have the baby."

And of course, encourage your pro-choice leaders to quit pandering on parental notification, and start doing what they need to: avidly denouncing forced childbirth in teenage girls.

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