Parental notification laws delay minors’ access to abortion care, study finds

Judges can deny minors' petitions for abortions for a multitude of reportedly arbitrary reasons.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

Parental notification laws requiring parents to be involved in a minor’s decision to get an abortion result in  delayed abortion care and a decrease in abortions for minors, according to a new study from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health. These laws do not increase certainty in a minor’s decision to get an abortion or help improve parental support.

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, analyzed administrative and medical records of more than 1,500 individuals obtaining abortions before and after implementation of a parental notification requirement at an Illinois facility between 2012 and 2015. The analysis did not include minors who weighed whether or not to have an abortion, but decided not to or could not access abortion care, which may have resulted in the study underestimating the law’s effects on minors’ abortion access.

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Lauren Ralph, lead author of the study and epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told ThinkProgress in a statement that “These laws are often promoted as a way to ensure family communication on abortion, but we find that although minors involved a parent after the law went into effect, this did not translate into increased decision certainty for minors nor into increased parental support for that decision.”

In fact, after implementation of the parental notification requirement, the proportion of abortions that happened in the second trimester went from 23 percent to 26 percent among minors.

Thirty-seven states require parents to be involved in a minor’s decision to get an abortion and 21 states require parental consent only, with three requiring both parents to consent to the abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Five states require both that parents be notified and that parents agree to the abortion. In eight states, minors need to have the parental consent documentation notarized to get an abortion. In Illinois, a pregnant minor can consent to an abortion without parental permission, but the law requires health providers to notify parents before the abortion.

Research shows many children choose to involve parents regardless of whether such a law exists, but children who fear parents or don’t have supportive relationships with parents may be hurt by these laws. In 2010, researchers conducted 30 interviews of minors and found that most of those living in states where parental involvement was not required chose to involve their parents. These minors cited factors such as a supportive relationships and disclosure that was inevitable.

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But minors who did not want to involve parents cited fear or detachment from a parent, preservation of autonomy, forced pregnancies, and preservation of their relationship with a parent. A 1998 Berkeley Women’s Law Journal article argued that such laws fail to consider situations in which family members sexually abuse their children. And one 1991 study with a nationally representative survey of more than 1,500 minors found that for those who decided not to tell their parents about an abortion, 30 percent of them had experienced violence in their family, feared violence would happen, or were afraid parents would force them out of their home.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that parents don’t have an absolute right to override a child’s decision to get an abortion and that there can’t be an undue burden on minors seeking abortions. Most states with these laws have a judicial bypass procedure that allows young people to get abortion care without a parent’s knowledge or consent.

However, the process can be difficult, demoralizing, and, ultimately, can result in further delays to abortion care. As Mother Jones reported in 2014, in 40 cases reviewed, judges denied minors’ petitions for reportedly arbitrary reasons, such as failing to discuss the matter with a priest. One young woman said that a Florida judge asked her if she had thought about her decision in church. The judge was also “upset to learn [she] wasn’t dating the father.”

Carol Sanger, a Columbia Law School professor who studies judicial bypass hearings, told the Chicago Tribune in 2015 that although no denials in Illinois have been appealed, in other states, “Girls get turned down for all kinds of reasons. Like stuttering. Or saying, ‘Um, um, um,’ a lot. The judge will say, ‘Well, that shows she’s not very mature.'”

A 2012 study of abortion-seeking minors’ views on Illinois’ parental notification law found that most minors had negative perceptions of the law, believing that it would lead to less autonomy, adverse parent reactions, and damaged relationships. They also did not have high hopes for judicial bypass and described it as overwhelming and logistically complicated. Minors worried that some young people might “go to extreme lengths to avoid the process.”

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Anti-abortion lawmakers and groups have called judicial bypass a “rubber stamp.” Despite the hurdles that already exist with the procedure, Alabama tried to make the process even worse by passing a law that would allow judges to appoint a lawyer for the person’s unborn fetus and allow the local district attorney to bring in witnesses, such as teachers or a significant other, to speak to the minor’s maturity to make the decision. The law passed in 2014, but, in August, a federal judge struck it down over the “undue burden” rule.

In Ohio, where judicial bypasses have to be obtained in or adjacent to the county in which the minor lives, legislators passed a less extreme law in 2011 that increased requirements for minors during the judicial bypass process. Judges must also ask questions of the minor using medically inaccurate information that alludes to a non-existent link between abortion and mental health outcomes.

Abortion rights advocates have criticized opponents for apparently focusing on the question of maturity only when minors want to have an abortion.

“Surely if we believe young people are mature enough to parent or responsible enough to carry a baby to term, and thoughtful enough to make the decision to put a baby up for adoption without parental or judicial intervention … they should also have to right to decide whether or not to get a 10-minute medical procedure,” feminist author Jessica Valenti wrote in the Guardian last year.