Commentary Sexual Health

Treating Teenagers as People: The Debate Over Adolescent Medical Privacy

Amanda Marcotte

A parent's freakout over the possibility that her teenage daughter might talk to a doctor without a parent present is an important reminder that adolescent rights to medical privacy are ill-defined and need to be clarified, to protect teenage health.

Much of the Internet lit up last week either laughing at or debating this story of a Michigan mother named Christy Duffy who went into total meltdown mode upon seeing a sign at the local hospital informing parents that “Michigan Medical Records access laws” require “a nurse to have a 5 minute private conversation with your child.”

Duffy is clearly one of those parents who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes shielding kids from any acknowledgment that sex exists will stifle their desire to have it.

This led to some hilarious full-blown right-wing hysteria. “I had to cut the conversation short because I was not letting my girl out of my eyesight or earshot,” Duffy told One News Now, a Christian right website. “Not when it was clear that these people were angling to undermine my parental authority.”

The levels of self-righteous delusion are truly a wonder to behold. “I am the Mom. I will pick who can talk to my kids about sex and drugs,” Duffy says of her 17-year-old daughter, causing most people who remember being teenagers to laugh at her deluded notions of control. “And rock-n-roll, for that matter,” she added for good measure.

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Duffy spun an elaborate conspiracy theory about how the sign was part of grand plan by “the State” to garner control for financial reasons—it’s all pretty hazy, but by way of assuring us that she is perfectly rational, she notes: “I’m not into farming, camping, or living anywhere without serious, made-possible-by-the-grid facilities.” OK.

One News Now included a poll in the article asking its conservative readership how they felt about the story. By far, the most popular choice, at 71 percent, was “Do children belong to the parents…or the state?”

Cue dramatic music.

Sarcasm aside, the popularity of that poll answer should be deeply concerning, since it gets to the heart of one of the most dangerous ideologies peddled by the Christian right regarding the rights of minors. “Do children belong to the parents or the state” should be immediately recognizable as a false choice. Children are human beings and therefore are not property, and they do not “belong” to anyone.

By protecting the rights of minors, the state is not stealing them from their parents. You can’t steal what you didn’t own in the first place.

Yes, we give a lot of decision-making power to parents in our society, but that power should never be confused with ownership. Children’s status as “minors” is an acknowledgement that they are not capable of making all their own decisions yet and need someone to do some of that work for them. However—and this is critical—the idea of raising a child is that you gradually start shifting more and more of the responsibility for decision making from yourself to them. By the time most kids are 17, like Duffy’s daughter, they should be taking enough responsibility for themselves that they can make the transition to living outside of the house with ease when they turn 18, if that’s the best choice for them and their family.

As a child’s responsibilities grow, so should their rights, including the right to privacy. Yes, that includes medical privacy. Ideally, all doctors should be able to have a few minutes alone with children of all ages in situations when they believe screening for child abuse is warranted. But particularly when children become teenagers, they start to have all sorts of valid reasons that their parents should not be in the room with them for a solid chunk of a doctor’s visit. This goes double for children with overbearing parents. What if a teenager is having or is interested in sex and has important questions about staying healthy? Even if you have understanding parents, that can be a hard thing to ask in front of them; if someone like Christy Duffy is your mother, it’s basically impossible. Just for basic health and safety reasons, teenagers deserve a modicum of privacy.

This should all seem like common sense, but as the enthusiasm on the right for Duffy’s story shows, the “ownership” model of parenting—one, it must be pointed out, that is not recognized by the government, which absolutely does not allow you to treat children like property—collapses the difference between the rights and responsibilities of a toddler and those of a teenager. It stops being about what’s best for a child’s development into a grown adult and instead imagines children as nothing but vessels for the parental ego. Taken too far, you start to see cases like the Florida woman who kidnapped her own child in order to prevent her from being vaccinated and from being educated in a public school—in that case, the mother feared her daughter might unlearn some of the racist hatred she had been pouring in her ear.

In the particular case of Christy Duffy, and her overwhelming control issues regarding her daughter on the cusp of legal adulthood, it turns out that the fit being thrown wasn’t even a reflection of reality. According to the One News Now report, which was written to maximize right-wing reader panic, the hospital in question was just trying to clean up its medical records system and was not actually implementing some catch-all “separate child from parent” strategy. Duffy was conspiracy theory flipping out over a policy that doesn’t seem to actually exist.

But the thing is that policies like this should exist, because children are people, not property.

A real concern right now in our country is that our laws regarding adolescent rights to medical privacy are patchwork and confusing. Ideally, we would have a single, clear set of rights that adolescents enjoy, including the right to private consultation with doctors and the right to have their medical records not be shown to their parents. It should definitely include the right to contraception and abortion without parental notification, much less consent. Having this kind of clarity would go a long way toward reminding conservative parents that their children are people with rights, and not property to be treated however a parent sees fit.

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