The Maine legislature is considering a bill that would require minors to receive parental consent for all prescriptions. This is an issue that may be difficult for parents to think about or talk about, because it’s about giving their children the right, in theory, to have secrets from them. But as Lisa Haberzettl, a writer for the University of Maine’s student newspaper, points out, parental consent discourages girls from taking care of their sexual health.
There are a few things we can do about this. We can work to improve the dialogue on sex between parents and their children of all ages, so that by the time young people become sexually active, they feel comfortable talking to their parents about contraception. Some lucky teenagers have such relationships with their parents.
But there is only so much that well-meaning groups, state-funded or otherwise, can do about the way that parents relate to their children. There are some parents who will never be comfortable talking to their kids about sex, or who believe that access to contraception encourages sex, or who don’t believe in contraception, period. The question is, do these teenagers have the right to be healthy, or should they be subject to their parents’ rules?
Let’s look at other questions of children’s and young adults’ health. Both the United States Supreme Court and state courts have ruled that parents may not refuse their children medical treatment on religious grounds. In Prince v. Massachusetts, in 1944 (which was directly about child labor rather than medical treatment), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death.” In 1988, the California Supreme Court ruled that a woman who had relied only on spiritual healing for her 4-year-old, who died from meningitis, could be tried for involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. The court clarified its position by distinguishing the mother’s “subjective intent to heal her daughter” from “the objective reasonableness of her course of conduct.” At the time, members of the Church of Christ, Scientist argued that “the government should not mandate conventional medical care over spiritual alternatives, when both can claim successes and failures.”
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In the same way, opponents of comprehensive sex education argue that the government should not fund this type of education, when both abstinence-only education and condom-inclusive education have their merits. But in the cases above, the court looked at one thing, objectively: the well-being of the child.
When access to contraception is politicized, the well-being of the young adult is not the primary concern. In the case of prescription contraceptives, it’s the doctor’s job to determine if the contraceptive is safe. Beyond that, we should allow young people to take care of their sexual health the way the rest of us feel most comfortable doing it: in private.