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.

 

News Sexual Health

State With Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

News Law and Policy

Texas Lawmaker’s ‘Coerced Abortion’ Campaign ‘Wildly Divorced From Reality’

Teddy Wilson

Anti-choice groups and lawmakers in Texas are charging that coerced abortion has reached epidemic levels, citing bogus research published by researchers who oppose legal abortion care.

A Texas GOP lawmaker has teamed up with an anti-choice organization to raise awareness about the supposed prevalence of forced or coerced abortion, which critics say is “wildly divorced from reality.”

Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) during a press conference at the state capitol on July 13 announced an effort to raise awareness among public officials and law enforcement that forced abortion is illegal in Texas.

White said in a statement that she is proud to work alongside The Justice Foundation (TJF), an anti-choice group, in its efforts to tell law enforcement officers about their role in intervening when a pregnant person is being forced to terminate a pregnancy. 

“Because the law against forced abortions in Texas is not well known, The Justice Foundation is offering free training to police departments and child protective service offices throughout the State on the subject of forced abortion,” White said.

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White was joined at the press conference by Allan Parker, the president of The Justice Foundation, a “Christian faith-based organization” that represents clients in lawsuits related to conservative political causes.

Parker told Rewire that by partnering with White and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), TJF hopes to reach a wider audience.

“We will partner with anyone interested in stopping forced abortions,” Parker said. “That’s why we’re expanding it to police, social workers, and in the fall we’re going to do school counselors.”

White only has a few months remaining in office, after being defeated in a closely contested Republican primary election in March. She leaves office after serving one term in the state GOP-dominated legislature, but her short time there was marked by controversy.

During the Texas Muslim Capitol Day, she directed her staff to “ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in an email to Rewire that White’s education initiative overstates the prevalence of coerced abortion. “Molly White’s so-called ‘forced abortion’ campaign is yet another example that shows she is wildly divorced from reality,” Busby said.

There is limited data on the how often people are forced or coerced to end a pregnancy, but Parker alleges that the majority of those who have abortions may be forced or coerced.

‘Extremely common but hidden’

“I would say that they are extremely common but hidden,” Parker said. “I would would say coerced or forced abortion range from 25 percent to 60 percent. But, it’s a little hard be to accurate at this point with our data.”

Parker said that if “a very conservative 10 percent” of the about 60,000 abortions that occur per year in Texas were due to coercion, that would mean there are about 6,000 women per year in the state that are forced to have an abortion. Parker believes that percentage is much higher.

“I believe the number is closer to 50 percent, in my opinion,” Parker said. 

There were 54,902 abortions in Texas in 2014, according to recently released statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The state does not collect data on the reasons people seek abortion care. 

White and Parker referenced an oft cited study on coerced abortion pushed by the anti-choice movement.

“According to one published study, sixty-four percent of American women who had abortions felt forced or unduly pressured by someone else to have an unwanted abortion,” White said in a statement.

This statistic is found in a 2004 study about abortion and traumatic stress that was co-authored by David Reardon, Vincent Rue, and Priscilla Coleman, all of whom are among the handful of doctors and scientists whose research is often promoted by anti-choice activists.

The study was cited in a report by the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research, an anti-choice organization founded by Reardon. 

Other research suggests far fewer pregnant people are coerced into having an abortion.

Less than 2 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 2004 reported that a partner or parent wanting them to abort was the most important reason they sought the abortion, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute.

That same report found that 24 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 14 percent surveyed in 2004 listed “husband or partner wants me to have an abortion” as one of the reasons that “contributed to their decision to have an abortion.” Eight percent in 1987 and 6 percent in 2004 listed “parents want me to have an abortion” as a contributing factor.

‘Flawed research’ and ‘misinformation’  

Busby said that White used “flawed research” to lobby for legislation aimed at preventing coerced abortions in Texas.

“Since she filed her bogus coerced abortion bill—which did not pass—last year, she has repeatedly cited flawed research and now is partnering with the Justice Foundation, an organization known to disseminate misinformation and shameful materials to crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said.  

White sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills during the 2015 legislative session, including several anti-choice bills. The bills she sponsored included proposals to increase requirements for abortion clinics, restrict minors’ access to abortion care, and ban health insurance coverage of abortion services.

White also sponsored HB 1648, which would have required a law enforcement officer to notify the Department of Family and Protective Services if they received information indicating that a person has coerced, forced, or attempted to coerce a pregnant minor to have or seek abortion care.

The bill was met by skepticism by both Republican lawmakers and anti-choice activists.

State affairs committee chairman Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) told White during a committee hearing the bill needed to be revised, reported the Texas Tribune.

“This committee has passed out a number of landmark pieces of legislation in this area, and the one thing I think we’ve learned is they have to be extremely well-crafted,” Cook said. “My suggestion is that you get some real legal folks to help engage on this, so if you can keep this moving forward you can potentially have the success others have had.”

‘Very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem’

White testified before the state affairs committee that there is a connection between women who are victims of domestic or sexual violence and women who are coerced to have an abortion. “Pregnant women are most frequently victims of domestic violence,” White said. “Their partners often threaten violence and abuse if the woman continues her pregnancy.”

There is research that suggests a connection between coerced abortion and domestic and sexual violence.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, told the American Independent that coerced abortion cannot be removed from the discussion of reproductive coercion.

“Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health,” Miller said. “To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence.”

A 2010 study co-authored by Miller surveyed about 1,300 men and found that 33 percent reported having been involved in a pregnancy that ended in abortion; 8 percent reported having at one point sought to prevent a female partner from seeking abortion care; and 4 percent reported having “sought to compel” a female partner to seek an abortion.

Another study co-authored by Miller in 2010 found that among the 1,300 young women surveyed at reproductive health clinics in Northern California, about one in five said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced birth control sabotage.

‘Tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion’

TJF’s so-called Center Against Forced Abortions claims to provide legal resources to pregnant people who are being forced or coerced into terminating a pregnancy. The website includes several documents available as “resources.”

One of the documents, a letter addressed to “father of your child in the womb,” states that that “you may not force, coerce, or unduly pressure the mother of your child in the womb to have an abortion,” and that you could face “criminal charge of fetal homicide.”

The letter states that any attempt to “force, unduly pressure, or coerce” a women to have an abortion could be subject to civil and criminal charges, including prosecution under the Federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

The document cites the 2007 case Lawrence v. State as an example of how one could be prosecuted under Texas law.

“What anti-choice activists are doing here is really egregious,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of Law and the Courts. “They are using a case where a man intentionally shot his pregnant girlfriend and was charged with murder for both her death and the death of the fetus as an example of reproductive coercion. That’s not reproductive coercion. That is extreme domestic violence.”

“To use a horrific case of domestic violence that resulted in a woman’s murder as cover for yet another anti-abortion restriction is the very definition of callousness,” Mason Pieklo added.

Among the other resources that TJF provides is a document produced by Life Dynamics, a prominent anti-choice organization based in Denton, Texas.

Parker said a patient might go to a “pregnancy resource center,” fill out the document, and staff will “send that to all the abortionists in the area that they can find out about. Often that will stop an abortion. That’s about 98 percent successful, I would say.”

Reproductive rights advocates contend that the document is intended to mislead pregnant people into believing they have signed away their legal rights to abortion care.

Abortion providers around the country who are familiar with the document said it has been used for years to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, previously told Rewire that abortion providers from across the country have reported receiving the forms.

“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.

Busby said that the types of tactics used by TFJ and other anti-choice organizations are a form of coercion.

“Everyone deserves to make decisions about abortion free of coercion, including not being coerced by crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said. “Anyone’s decision to have an abortion should be free of shame and stigma, which crisis pregnancy centers and groups like the Justice Foundation perpetuate.”

“Law enforcement would be well advised to seek their own legal advice, rather than rely on this so-called ‘training,” Busby said.

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