NOTIFICATION LAW: IN WHOSE BEST INTEREST?

Burlington County Times, February 26, 2001

On the face of it, there’s nothing offensive or controversial about a New Jersey State constitutional amendment proposed by Assembly Speaker Jack Collins, R-Salem. If his amendment is approved by the voters, it would grant the legislature the authority to enact laws requiring doctors to notify parents before performing medical procedures on their children. As Collins said at a State House news conference in November, “Parents have a fundamental right to counsel, care and manage their children.” Who would disagree with that statement?

Quite a few people would, it seems, including 36 members of the Assembly who voted against the measure, meaning that it was passed only by a simple majority rather than by the three-fifths needed for immediate approval. And including many in the Senate, which did not even vote on the proposal in early December. (Because it was passed by only a simple majority, the measure will have to pass both houses for two consecutive years before it can be placed before the voters on a November ballot.)

Why would anyone object to parents’ being informed before their children undergo a surgical procedure? Because Collins’ proposal is not about parents’ being told ahead of time that their five year old’s tonsils are going to be removed. It is intended instead as an end run around the State Supreme Court, which found that Collins’ law mandating parental notification for abortions was unconstitutional “because a minor’s right to control her reproductive decisions is among the most fundamental of the rights she possesses.”

I find it ironic that the Republicans, whose philosophy of government is “less is more,” want to legislate our personal lives, while the Democrats, those proponents of Big Government, want the government to leave us alone. After all, even Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative himself, said, “A woman has a right to an abortion,” and that no one — in particular, the government — should interfere with that right. (He believed so strongly in a woman’s right to choose that he didn’t even want religious authorities to have a say in the matter: “That’s a decision that’s up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the Religious Right.”)

He further said, “Being a conservative in America traditionally has meant that one holds a deep, abiding respect for the Constitution.” I’m not a conservative or a Republican (and I never would have believed that I’d be quoting Goldwater to bolster one of my own arguments), but it seems to me that trying to pass a law that the courts have declared to be unconstitutional by making a few semantic changes is contradictory to the conservative standards of the Republican party. But that is exactly what Collins is trying to do.

The bigger question is whether or not parental notification makes any sense. According to some sources, 60% of teenagers do tell their parents – and, in fact, the parents accompany them to the clinic. But what about the other 40%? Will a law force them to tell their parents, or will it only make them into “criminals”?

And why don’t those 40% tell their parents? Some, I’m sure, are 18 or 19 years old and living away from their parents’ house. If they are living independently of heir parents, should they have to get their permission? Others have been impregnated by a relative and are afraid to tell. Others come from an abusive home – if the parents are going to beat them for breaking curfew or getting a poor grade, then what would happen if they became pregnant?

And then there are the “good girls,” the ones who come from stable, loving, intact, two-parent, non-dysfunctional homes, the ones whom we’d expect to tell their parents. But obviously, not all of them do confide in their parents. If they did, then we wouldn’t have teenaged girls giving birth in the bathroom during their prom and stuffing the newborn into a waste basket. We wouldn’t have two college students killing their newborn, wrapping the remains in a trash bag, and throwing it into a trash bin. Why didn’t they tell their parents – or anyone – that they were pregnant? I suspect that they come from families that have high expectations of their children. The young women probably could not face the prospect of seeing the looks of disappointment on their parents’ faces, the disbelief in their eyes. They most likely felt embarrassed and chagrined. A parental notification law would have done nothing to have assuaged their fears, nor would it have canceled out the incredible ability teenagers have for magical thinking and denial. (“If I don’t acknowledge it, it won’t be true.”)

Anna Quindlan, writing in Newsweek several weeks ago, noted that outlawing Roe v. Wade would not eradicate abortions; it would just eliminate safe ones. When Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood in 1916, she wanted to promote birth control not because of the numbers of destitute children she saw running wild in the streets of the Lower East Side. She did so because of the numbers of women – dead and mangled – who had undergone dangerous abortions.

The question we need to answer is: what would benefit our children the most? Forcing them to confide in us? Or ensuring that they have access to safe, legal, confidential medical procedures.

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