Commentary Abortion

Listen to Youth: Adult Allies Must Support the Repeal of Illinois’ Forced Parental Notification Law

Renee Bracey Sherman

While forced parental involvement laws aren’t new, more states have been passing them or tightening their existing laws to decrease access to abortion for teens.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

As May comes to a close, so do National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month campaigns. Some of the conversations this month highlighted the need for comprehensive, age-appropriate health and sexuality education, and to ensure young people have access to contraception.

But sadly, it was also a month filled with messages that judge and shame pregnant and parenting teens and young women who seek abortion.

One place where the tension between supporting and shaming really comes through is in my home state of Illinois. The issues of young people, sex, pregnancy, parenting, and abortion have been heating up in recent years due to a fight around the implementation of the forced parental notification law.

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The Parental Notice of Abortion Act requires an abortion provider to notify the parent or guardian of a young person age 17 or younger who’s seeking an abortion within 48 hours of the teen receiving care. If a young person does not feel they can go to their parent or guardian, there is a provision that allows them to request a bypass from a judge. Of course this is not a simple process—it requires navigating the complex court system, in addition to missing school to see a judge who might let their personal feelings about abortion block the young person’s access to reproductive health care. In a small town, where everyone knows each other, it can also mean that a young person loses any and all privacy around their medical decisions; shaming gossip spreads fast amongst the cornstalks.

The Illinois law, originally passed in 1995, was held up in the courts for years, but last summer a ruling came down that the archaic policy would be enforced starting this past fall.

“Not only does this law make a difficult decision more dangerous for the most vulnerable of youth, but it interferes with healthy and trusting family communication,” explained Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH).

ICAH’s youth leaders are working in partnership with the Chicago Abortion Fund, Parenting for Success, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois to support young people who are hurt by the law while raising awareness and building support to repeal this policy. In April, the coalition sent youth leaders to Springfield, the state capitol, to make their voices heard.

Laws like this one keep young people from accessing the basic health care they need—especially when access to reproductive health care is already dwindling across the country. While forced parental involvement laws aren’t new, more states have been passing them or tightening their existing laws to decrease access to abortion for teens—which doesn’t make sense at a time when teen pregnancy, abortion, and birth rates are, and have been, at record lows.

Not only do youth know what they do and don’t need, research also shows that such legislation isn’t necessary. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 90 percent of 14-year-olds and 74 percent of 15-year-olds surveyed said they involved at least one parent or guardian in their abortion decision. Those young people who didn’t cited that they were worried that they may be thrown out or experience other abuse by their guardian.

Overall, young people between the ages of 15 and 17 obtain 6 percent of abortions, and youth under 15 years old obtain 0.4 percent of abortions.

These laws also have negative health effects by forcing some young people to delay accessing abortion services, which can result in more expensive procedures and/or fewer options, or to seek unsafe care. This is not an outcome anyone who cares about young people wants.

“The law won’t help youth access safe abortions; they’ll access unsafe abortions on their own,” said Imani Harris, a youth leader with ICAH.

We should support families as they work to build trust, but political interference is not the answer. I know this first-hand—I became pregnant in my teens and sought an abortion from a clinic on Chicago’s north side. Even though my parents believe that people should be able to seek abortion when they need it, I was still scared to tell them I was pregnant. With everything I was told about teen pregnancy, I felt ashamed. I felt like I had failed.

I wish people understood how the negative images and nasty rhetoric around pregnant and parenting teens hurts real people.

I didn’t have the strength to tell my parents about my pregnancy until I was in my mid-20s. They support my decision, but back then I was living under their roof, and it would have inflamed the already challenging relationship I had with them. I can’t imagine what it’s like for young people whose parents tell them they’ll throw them out for simply getting pregnant, let alone seeking an abortion or having a child. I am glad I knew about my options and was able to seek out care from a quality provider. It made a difference in my life to feel like I had control and was able to make the best decision for me. Now, as an adult ally, I want to support youth in making their own health-care decisions and create space for them to speak up for their own needs, rather than make decisions for them.

Instead of shaming young people for becoming pregnant, and then again for seeking an abortion or becoming a parent, we should take a moment to listen to what they say they need: access to comprehensive sexual health education and contraception, and the ability to make the best decisions they can about their own bodies and lives. They need support from their parents, guardians, and other trusted adults. They need the Young Parents Dignity Agenda, a movement to secure access to resources like education, housing, health care, and healthy foods.

They want to be able to make the decisions that make sense for their lives. And we should support that.

We want to believe that young people will have the support and guidance of a parent or trusted adult in their life as they decide what to do with their pregnancy, but we often don’t recognize that this isn’t the reality for some people. This is the larger message ICAH’s Organizing and Advocacy Coordinator Tiffany Pryor seeks to educate legislators about. “We always want to remind people that we can all support communication between parents and their children while highlighting that not all young people have safe homes or adults they can talk to about this decision,” she said. And she’s right: You can’t legislate good family communication.

ICAH youth leader Torrence Johnson believes that we should focus our energy around changing the climate in which young people live, rather than legislating uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations: “We want to promote healthy conversations when it’s positive and in a safe environment. We’d never want to force it on people.”

Young people can and do make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. Young people are smart. Young people are capable. We must trust their decision-making by empowering them and increasing their access to resources, not by telling them their lives will be over if they become pregnant and adding barriers to them taking control of their own lives. You shouldn’t have fewer rights simply because you’re a young person. And you certainly shouldn’t have fewer rights because you don’t have an ideal relationship with your family.

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.

Culture & Conversation Abortion

With Buffer Zones and Decline of ‘Rescues’ Came Anti-Choice Legal Boom, Book Argues

Eleanor J. Bader

University of Denver's Joshua Wilson argues that prosecutions of abortion-clinic protesters and the decline of "rescue" groups in the 1980s and 1990s boosted conservative anti-abortion legal activism nationwide.

There is nothing startling or even new in University of Denver Professor Joshua C. Wilson’s The New States of Abortion Politics (Stanford University Press). But the concise volume—just 99 pages of text—pulls together several recent trends among abortion opponents and offers a clear assessment of where that movement is going.

As Wilson sees it, anti-choice activists have moved from the streets, sidewalks, and driveways surrounding clinics to the courts. This, he argues, represents not only a change of agitational location but also a strategic shift. Like many other scholars and advocates, Wilson interprets this as a move away from pushing for the complete reversal of Roe v. Wade and toward a more incremental, state-by-state winnowing of access to reproductive health care. Furthermore, he points out that it is no coincidence that this maneuver took root in the country’s most socially conservative regions—the South and Midwest—before expanding outward.

Wilson credits two factors with provoking this metamorphosis. The first was congressional passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994, legislation that imposed penalties on protesters who blocked patients and staff from entering or leaving reproductive health facilities. FACE led to the establishment of protest-free buffer zones at freestanding clinics, something anti-choicers saw as an infringement on their right to speak freely.

Not surprisingly, reproductive rights activists—especially those who became active in the 1980s and early 1990s as a response to blockades, butyric acid attacks, and various forms of property damage at abortion clinics—saw the zones as imperative. In their experiences, buffer zones were the only way to ensure that patients and staff could enter or leave a facility without being harassed or menaced.

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The second factor, Wilson writes, involved the reduced ranks of the so-called “rescue” movement, a fundamentalist effort led by the Lambs of Christ, Operation Rescue, Operation Save America, and Priests for Life. While these groups are former shadows of themselves, the end of the rescue era did not end anti-choice activism. Clinics continue to be picketed, and clinicians are still menaced. In fact, local protesters and groups such as 40 Days for Life and the Center for Medical Progress (which has exclusively targeted Planned Parenthood) negatively affect access to care. Unfortunately, Wilson does not tackle these updated forms of harassment and intimidation—or mention that some of the same players are involved, albeit in different roles.

Instead, he argues the two threads—FACE and the demise of most large-scale clinic protests—are thoroughly intertwined. Wilson accurately reports that the rescue movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in hundreds of arrests as well as fines and jail sentences for clinic blockaders. This, he writes, opened the door to right-wing Christian attorneys eager to make a name for themselves by representing arrested and incarcerated activists.

But the lawyers’ efforts did not stop there. Instead, they set their sights on FACE and challenged the statute on First Amendment grounds. As Wilson reports, for almost two decades, a loosely connected group of litigators and activists worked diligently to challenge the buffer zones’ legitimacy. Their efforts finally paid off in 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that “protection against unwelcome speech cannot justify restrictions on the use of public streets and sidewalks.” In short, the decision in McCullen v. Coakley found that clinics could no longer ask the courts for blanket prohibitions on picketing outside their doors—even when they anticipated prayer vigils, demonstrations, or other disruptions. They had to wait until something happened.

This, of course, was bad news for people in need of abortions and other reproductive health services, and good news for the anti-choice activists and the lawyers who represented them. Indeed, the McCullen case was an enormous win for the conservative Christian legal community, which by the early 2000s had developed into a network united by opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

The New States of Abortion Politics zeroes in on one of these legal groups: the well-heeled and virulently anti-choice Alliance Defending Freedom, previously known as the Alliance Defense Fund. It’s a chilling portrait.

According to Wilson, ADF’s budget was $40 million in 2012, a quarter of which came from the National Christian Foundation, an Alpharetta, Georgia, entity that claims to have distributed $6 billion in grants to right-wing Christian organizing efforts since 1982.

By any measure, ADF has been effective in promoting its multipronged agenda: “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family.” In practical terms, this means opposing LGBTQ inclusion, abortion, marriage equality, and the right to determine one’s gender identity for oneself.

The group’s tentacles run deep. In addition to a staff of 51 full-time lawyers and hundreds of volunteers, a network of approximately 3,000 “allied attorneys” work in all 50 states to boost ADF’s agenda. Allies are required to sign a statement affirming their commitment to the Trinitarian Statement of Faith, a hallmark of fundamentalist Christianity that rests on a literal interpretation of biblical scripture. They also have to commit to providing 450 hours of pro bono legal work over three years to promote ADF’s interests—no matter their day job or other obligations. Unlike the American Bar Association, which encourages lawyers to provide free legal representation to poor clients, ADF’s allied attorneys steer clear of the indigent and instead focus exclusively on sexuality, reproduction, and social conservatism.

What’s more, by collaborating with other like-minded outfits—among them, Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice—ADF provides conservative Christian lawyers with an opportunity to team up on both local and national cases. Periodic trainings—online as well as in-person ones—offer additional chances for skill development and schmoozing. Lastly, thanks to Americans United for Life, model legislation and sample legal briefs give ADF’s other allies an easy way to plug in and introduce ready-made bills to slowly but surely chip away at abortion, contraceptive access, and LGBTQ equality.

The upshot has been dramatic. Despite the recent Supreme Court win in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the number of anti-choice measures passed by statehouses across the country has ramped up since 2011. Restrictions—ranging from parental consent provisions to mandatory ultrasound bills and expanded waiting periods for people seeking abortions—have been imposed. Needless to say, the situation is unlikely to improve appreciably for the foreseeable future. What’s more, the same people who oppose abortion have unleashed a backlash to marriage equality as well as anti-discrimination protections for the trans community, and their howls of disapproval have hit a fever pitch.

The end result, Wilson notes, is that the United States now has “an inconstant localized patchwork of rules” governing abortion; some counties persist in denying marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, making homophobic public servants martyrs in some quarters. As for reproductive health care, it all depends on where one lives: By virtue of location, some people have relatively easy access to medical providers while others have to travel hundreds of miles and take multiple days off from work to end an unwanted pregnancy. Needless to say, this is highly pleasing to ADF’s attorneys and has served to bolster their fundraising efforts. After all, nothing brings in money faster than demonstrable success.

The New States of Abortion Politics is a sobering reminder of the gains won by the anti-choice movement. And while Wilson does not tip his hand to indicate his reaction to this or other conservative victories—he is merely the reporter—it is hard to read the volume as anything short of a call for renewed activism in support of reproductive rights, both in the courts and in the streets.