New Measure Puts Alaskan Teens At Risk

Pamela Merritt

Five days on the ground talking to voters in Anchorage, Alaska really drove home what’s at stake for reproductive justice, voters and for Alaskan teens.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been changed from its original to replace “consent” with “notification” in paragraph four.  We regret the error.

Last week I traveled from St. Louis Missouri to beautiful Anchorage, Alaska to volunteer with the No on 2 Campaign and help Alaskans fight a proposed parental notification ballot measure.  On Tuesday August 24, 2010 Alaskans voted in favor of the parental notification measure by a ratio of 55 percent to 45 percent. Even in pro-choice communities parental notification measures are challenging and people often find themselves torn between parental rights and the rights of teens.  Five days on the ground talking to voters in Anchorage, Alaska really drove home what’s at stake for reproductive justice, voters and for Alaskan teens. 

At first glance parental notification seems so simple – adults like the idea of knowing what’s going on in the lives of teens.  The good thing is that most teens, including Alaskan teens, do communicate with their parents.  But some teens in abusive family situations would face serious harm should their parents be notified of their pregnancy.  Parental notification mandates don’t discriminate and so-called safeguards like judicial by-passes are all too often better in theory than practice.

Alaskans Against Government Mandates is a coalition of teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, Planned Parenthood supporters, faith leaders and other Alaskans who joined together in hope of defeating Ballot Measure 2.  Alaskans from all walks of life oppose parental notification because they agreed that it was an unnecessary abortion restriction that would put teens at risk while doing nothing to reduce unplanned teen pregnancies.

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By approving Ballot Measure 2, also known as The Alaska Parental Involvement Act, a majority of Alaskan voters decided to forbid any minor from getting an abortion without a doctor informing at least one parent before moving forward with the procedure. The proposal also included enforcing legal penalties on doctors who perform abortions on minors without notification of the minor’s parents. Ballot Measure 2 allows the minor to go to court to authorize an abortion without giving notice to her parent or guardian. This is commonly referred to as a judicial by-pass. 

While volunteering in Alaska I participated in phone banks and door-to-door canvassing and I talked to a lot of Alaskan voters.  Many of those voters who were undecided on the parental notification issue pointed to the judicial bypass as an option for teens who would be put at risk should their parents be notified of their pregnancy and choose to seek abortion services.  When I explained the judicial bypass procedure to these voters they were often surprised at how complex and uncertain it really is.  A minor can’t just show up at court and casually secure a judicial bypass.  As Ballot Measure 2 reads, the minor could ask the court to excuse her from school to attend the hearings and to have the abortion. The court could direct the school not to tell the minor’s parent or guardian of the minor’s pregnancy, abortion, or absence from school. The bill allows a minor who is a victim of abuse by her parent or guardian to get an abortion without notice or consent. To do this, the minor and an adult relative or authorized official with personal knowledge of the abuse must sign a notarized statement about the abuse.

I walked undecided voters through the reality of that process for Alaskan teens, many of whom live in rural communities.  We discussed the fact that court is not required to excuse a minor from school and what it would mean for a teen if the court denies that initial request.  We talked about the fact that the court is not required to keep the teens request confidential.  “Could” is not the same as “must”, and it is a valid concern that under this new law courts can notify parents that their teen has requested a judicial bypass.  If that teen is a survivor of abuse by a parent, that means that their abuser would be notified that the victim sought a judicial by-pass and that puts the teen at risk.

Beyond the obvious daunting hurdles within the process of parental notification there is the reality of abuse in Alaska.  On phone call after phone call I talked to Alaskan voters about the fact that Alaska ranks fifth in the nation for the prevalence of child victimization, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. Alaska has some of the nation’s highest rates of family violence.  Alaskan rape statistics are some of the highest in the country.  The voters I spoke to knew these facts and the impact violence and neglect have on their community.  Many were swayed to vote no on measure 2 when they thought through how the law would impact the lives of at-risk teens, but some were not.  The No on 2 Campaign was able to close a huge gap, going from a nearly 30 point spread to within 10 points of defeating the parental notification abortion restriction. 

While in Anchorage I met some amazing activists who will be there for Alaskan teens who now face the ramifications of this new law.  It was an honor to volunteer with so many concerned Alaskans who gave the No on 2 Campaign their all and who, as a result, educated their community on the need to focus on teen health and child welfare rather than abortion restrictions.  Reproductive health care advocates will now work with the court system to help develop legal ways to assist teens within the challenging parameters of the new law. 

Alaska is stunningly beautiful, with majestic mountains and breathtaking views.  The people I met are hard working regular folk, diverse and strong and proud.  The activists I met were dedicated and determined to stand up for at-risk teens in their community. I came back home knowing that we fought the good fight and that the struggle to protect and defend reproductive justice will continue in Alaska.

Alaska’s parental notification measure will become law in a few months.  Reproductive justice advocates vow to be there for teens seeking to access the full range of reproductive health care options, including abortion services. In a statement issued after the election Christine Charbonneau, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, said –

“Last night, Alaska’s voters passed an initiative that will require teens under the age of 18 to notify their parents should they want an abortion. While we are very disappointed that we lost, the closeness of the results indicate that many Alaskans, like us, are worried about the danger laws like this pose to our most vulnerable teens. Make no mistake, Planned Parenthood will do everything legally possible to protect these vulnerable teens under this new law. Our doors will remain open to all women and men, regardless of age, who need reproductive health services.”

Doctors, counselors and Alaskan teens who are wondering how this law might affect them should visit www.teenpregnancysupport.com.

 

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

News Abortion

Parental Notification Law Struck Down in Alaska

Michelle D. Anderson

"The reality is that some young women face desperate circumstances and potentially violent consequences if they are forced to bring their parents into their reproductive health decisions," said Janet Crepps, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "This law would have deprived these vulnerable women of their constitutional rights and put them at risk of serious harm."

The Alaska Supreme Court has struck down a state law requiring physicians to give the parents, guardians, or custodians of teenage minors a two-day notice before performing an abortion.

The court ruled that the parental notification law, which applies to teenagers younger than 18, violated the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection guarantee and could not be enforced.

The ruling stems from an Anchorage Superior Court decision that involved the case of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands and physicians Dr. Jan Whitefield and Dr. Susan Lemagie against the State of Alaska and the notification law’s sponsors.

In the lower court ruling, a judge denied Planned Parenthood’s requested preliminary injunction against the law as a whole and went on to uphold the majority of the notification law.

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Planned Parenthood and the physicians had appealed that superior court ruling and asked for a reversal on both equal protection and privacy grounds.

Meanwhile, the State of Alaska and the notification law’s sponsors appealed the court’s decision to strike some of its provisions and the court’s ruling.

The notification law came about after an initiative approved by voters in August 2010. The law applied to “unemancipated, unmarried minors” younger than 18 seeking to terminate a pregnancy and only makes exceptions in documented cases of abuse and medical emergencies, such as one in which the pregnant person’s life is in danger.

Justice Daniel E. Winfree wrote in the majority opinion that the anti-choice law created “considerable tension between a minor’s fundamental privacy right to reproductive choice and how the State may advance its compelling interests.”

He said the law was discriminatory and that it could unjustifiably burden “the fundamental privacy rights only of minors seeking pregnancy termination, rather than [equally] to all pregnant minors.”

Chief Justice Craig Stowers dissented, arguing that the majority’s opinion “unjustifiably” departed from the Alaska Supreme Court’s prior approval of parental notification.

Stowers said the opinion “misapplies our equal protection case law by comparing two groups that are not similarly situated, and fails to consider how other states have handled similar questions related to parental notification laws.”

Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) officials praised the court’s ruling, saying that Alaska’s vulnerable teenagers will now be relieved of additional burdensome hurdles in accessing abortion care. Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, CRR, and Planned Parenthood represented plaintiffs in the case.

Janet Crepps, senior counsel at CRR, said in a statement that the “decision provides important protection to the safety and well-being of young women who need to end a pregnancy.”

“The reality is that some young women face desperate circumstances and potentially violent consequences if they are forced to bring their parents into their reproductive health decisions. This law would have deprived these vulnerable women of their constitutional rights and put them at risk of serious harm,” Crepps said.

CRR officials also noted that most young women seeking abortion care involve a parent, but some do not because they live an abusive or unsafe home.

The American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine have said minors’ access to confidential reproductive health services should be protected, according to CRR.