Six years ago, Illinois began enforcing the Parental Notice of Abortion Act, a state law that says parents must be notified when a girl 17 or younger is going to have an abortion.
We thought then that this made sense. Being pregnant is a life-changing experience. Decisions regarding pregnancy for women of any age, let alone for girls, can be heart-wrenching.
We, of course, encourage girls who are pregnant to turn to their parents — assuming they are responsible parents — for guidance and support.
The reality, though, is that not all parents are good parents, so the parental notice law includes an exception: Girls who do not feel they can safely turn to a parent, or who believe they are mature enough to have the procedure without telling a parent, can go to a judge instead, bypassing parental notice.
Six years of experience with the law, unfortunately, tells us that it hasn’t worked. The requirement that a girl go before a judge in some cases has put girls in real danger.
This was a difficult call for us, for sure. We fully appreciate the gravity of the issue. And, as parents, we would want to know.
But Illinois law recognizes that a pregnant woman or girl, regardless of her age, can decide whether to have a baby, place a baby up for adoption or have an abortion. If a doctor recommends that she have certain medical tests or a cesarean section, it is the girl’s decision whether to do so, not her parents’.
Parental notification of abortion means only that the parent is notified. It does not mean the parent can prohibit the procedure, at least not legally.
For good reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics is opposed to parental notice or consent laws. “Genuine concern for the best interests of minors argues strongly against” such laws, the organization said in a 2017 policy statement.
The AAP contends that parental notification and consent laws can lead to serious harm. “There is evidence,” the group’s policy statement continued, “that such legislation . . . increases the risk of medical and psychological harm to the adolescent.”
About once a week in Illinois, since 2013, a girl has gone before a judge to explain why she cannot tell her parents that she is going to have an abortion. By this point for the girl, she has been counseled by a doctor, as required by a professional code of ethics, and offered guidance by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. The ACLU, which has a 24/7 hotline that girls can turn to for help, provides its services pro bono.
The girls, we are told, often are terrified. But in 99.5 percent of the cases, the ACLU says, the judge agrees that the girl should not have to inform her parents.
In about another 600 cases, the ACLU reports, girls who called the crisis hotline do not make it to court. What happened to them? We would hope they decided they could, in fact, turn to a parent or legal guardian — and we would hope that trust proved justified. It’s reasonable to assume, though, that in many cases there were simply too many obstacles the girl had to overcome to get to court.
Consider all that a girl must do to see a judge:
The court system operates five days a week from about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., pretty much the same time the girl is likely to be in school. She might want to tell the judge that she cannot tell her parents about her planned abortion because she fears being thrown out of the house. But if the girl misses school to go to court, the school will notify her parents of her absence. And how does the girl explain her absence?
The girl also must find a way to court. If she’s lucky, there’s a bus. She can’t take Uber or Lyft; those accounts almost always are tied to parents’ credit cards.
In small towns, where everybody knows everybody, the girl might fear being seen at the courthouse by someone who knows her parents.
Even making a call to the ACLU hotline can be problematic. The girl must make the call when her parents aren’t around or, if her parents monitor her cellphone, use someone else’s phone.
Before retiring last year, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Susan Fox Gillis heard some of these cases, known as judicial bypass. She heard different reasons why girls couldn’t turn to their parents.
Many of the girls, she found, lived in volatile homes and reasonably feared being thrown out. Some girls had been sexually abused by family members.
“If the girls had been found out,” Judge Gillis told us, “there could have been serious repercussions.”
We strongly support parental rights, but we equally support the rights of minors to be safe.
It is sometimes said, rather glibly, that if a girl must by law tell her parents when she’s going to get her ears pierced, she should have to tell them when she’s going to get an abortion.
But nobody throws a kid into the street, or worse, for getting her ears pierced.
The Illinois Parental Notice of Abortion Act fails to protect. It only punishes.
Repeal the law.
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