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.