Author Richard North Patterson

(WOMENSENEWS)–Two years ago, I set out to research and write a novel of abortion politics focused on the two most vexing issues confronting the pro-choice movement: so-called “partial birth” abortion and parental consent laws. To do so, I imagined a new federal law, “The Protection of Life Act,” which restricted post-viability abortions for minors to cases in which, one, the minor gained the consent of a parent, based on a doctor’s advice that the pregnancy posed a “substantial risk” to “life or physical health,” or two, a federal court determined that such a risk existed.

My aim was a book, “Protect and Defend,” that was neither pro-choice nor pro-life, but pro-truth, in order to determine whether the understanding of the general public squared with actuality. And what I found was that the politicization of those issues by pro-life forces has created a yawning–and frequently inhumane–gap between reality and myth.

Take so-called “partial birth” abortion, the subject of such incendiary rhetoric. The majority of the public seems to believe that such procedures are common, that they are a belated means of birth control, performed by callous doctors on the healthy mothers of normal and viable fetuses, and, therefore, that they are a particularly distasteful form of abortion on demand.

The emotional power of this portrait has served the pro-life forces well, allowing them to intimidate politicians while casting pro-choice activists as, at best, oblivious to the moral implications of abortion, even at its most extreme.

The only problem is that none of this is so.

Political Version of ‘Partial Birth’ Abortion Is Light Years From Reality

I interviewed doctors who performed post-viability abortions, women who have had them and a myriad of experts including lawyers, judges, ethicists, activists and mental health professionals. To my regret, the only stakeholders who refused to see me, or to support their argument with fact, were two of the most prominent pro-life groups (though one faxed me grisly diagrams portraying a late-term abortion). I can only speculate as to their reasons. But one thing became very clear: The political version of “partial birth” abortion is light years from reality.

To start, the term itself is not medical, but invented by the pro-life movement to evoke images of fetuses aborted moments from birth. Yet it is so vaguely defined that many state laws banning “partial birth” have been struck down by the courts as embracing pre-viability abortions. True late-term abortion is exceedingly uncommon: Only 1 in 1,000 abortions takes place after 24 weeks, out of the total of 1.2 million abortions in the U.S. And because of the risks of harassment or worse, the doctors willing to perform them are about as rare.

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Why perform them at all? Not, as we are led to believe, because a prospective mother has tardily concluded that she does not wish to be one. Rather, they result from severe fetal anomalies, a palpable risk to a woman’s life or health–or both. Each of the women I interviewed was pregnant with wanted children; none contemplated abortion until faced with pregnancies gone hideously wrong–some of which threatened their own life and health. Yet even though termination was clearly in the interests of both the women and their families, none could relive this experience without lapsing into speechlessness, or even tears. I am aware of no evidence refuting these women as the human face of late-term abortion–certainly the pro-life groups I contacted provided none.

But because the procedures required for late-term abortion are not pleasant, the distasteful picture operates to obscure the medical reasons for it. In turn, that has allowed the pro-life movement to vilify a handful of already traumatized women in the service of a larger goal: to erode public support for the right to choose, protected by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade.

In this case, as happens so often, truth is the first casualty of politics.

Parental Consent Laws: Pointless to Dangerous

This maxim also applies to parental consent laws: the requirement of most states that pregnant minors obtain the consent of, or at least notify, one parent before procuring an abortion. The only alternative is for the minor to persuade a court that she is able to make a mature decision, or that abortion is otherwise in her best interests. To many parents, such laws make intuitive sense: We’re good parents, we like to believe, and any good parent would want to counsel a daughter at such a moment.

But this Norman Rockwell assumption dissolves on more serious reflection. To begin with, a functional family should not need or require a state or federal law to promote familial closeness. If such a trusting and supportive relationship has not already been established, it is unlikely legislators can create in a moment of crisis what the family has not developed over the course of a child’s life.

And the reasons for such a lack of trust too often involve causes we do not wish to contemplate–ranging from neglect, sexual shame and cultural disdain for women, to insanity, abuse and incest. (One irony, I learned through doctors at urban hospitals, is that incest is a leading cause of the fetal anomalies that lead to late-term abortions.)

Thus the effect of such laws can range from pointless to dangerous. One pregnant girl, afraid to disappoint her loving parents by seeking consent, died from an illegal abortion; another was killed by her own father after disclosing to her mother that he had raped her.

The most common effect of such parental consent and notification laws is that more teen-agers become mothers because they are afraid to ask permission or their parents refuse. In moments of candor, pro-life advocates privately admit that this is a principal aim of such laws, predicting that their passage will lessen the number of abortions.

Teen Mothers Likely Depressed, Dropping Out, Facing Dim Economic Future

But even were this consequence unintended, it is inevitable: What teen-ager afraid to confront her parents would then have the resources to hire a lawyer or face a judge? And logic dictates that the burdens of teen motherhood will fall on those least equipped for it: the poorest, the least educated, the least resilient. But regardless of demographics, experts tell us that a predictable result of motherhood for any adolescent is depression, economic marginalization and a failure to complete her education.

What, then, are the virtues of such laws? Proponents tell us that parental involvement can spare a minor the psychological trauma of abortion. But experts in adolescent psychology tell us that for most teens an unwanted pregnancy is far more traumatic than abortion and that the best predictor of emotional peace is the ability to decide about it for herself.

An unwilling parent is unlikely to be a good parent; the unwanted children are far more likely to drop out of school or commit acts of violence than children who are wanted, nurtured and well parented. All of these consequences suggest the ultimate failure of such laws: that childbirth compelled by parents, or a fear of parents, leads to familial rupture, not unity.

To me, the clearest lesson is that, in substituting fact for myth, politics debases the serious moral argument that should surround abortion, substituting myth for fact. For the facts impel a conclusion that Americans at large may find surprising: that in the areas of late-term abortion and parental consent, it is the pro-choice forces that can better claim the moral high ground.

Author and attorney Richard North Patterson’s book, “Protect and Defend,” is a novel of the Supreme Court and abortion politics. It will be available in book stores today, December 13.