Jeanne Baker

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS) Florida is a battleground state this year and not just for George Bush and John Kerry.

It’s also a key theater for the campaign to restrict the abortion rights of women younger than 18, requiring that the procedures be allowed only after at least one parent is notified. The Florida Legislature has twice passed parental involvement laws. Both times the state Supreme Court struck them down as violating young women’s constitutionalguarantees of privacy.

Because they couldn’t craft a law that passes constitutional muster, Florida lawmakers this year are trying a different tack–to get voters to loosen the state constitution instead.

The Nov. 2 ballot initiative, however, faces its own challenge today in a Tallahassee courtroom, where reproductive rights groups will argue it should be struck from the ballot because the wording is deceptive.

In Florida’s constitution, privacy rights have been explicit since 1980, when powerful Senate President Dempsey Barron, a Democrat from Panama City, lobbied extensively for the right to be left alone. As a member of the Constitutional Revision Commission, he offered this clause to voters, who heartily endorsed it at the polls:

Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life except as otherwise provided herein.

Currently, 44 states have parental consent or parental notification laws on the books, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Ten of those have been found unconstitutional and unenforceable.

Two Women Face Off

Two women are leading Florida’s battle over parental notification: Eileen Roberts, founder of the of Fredericksburg, Va.-based Mothers and Advocates for Mothers Alone Inc. and Jeanne Baker, a Miami attorney and president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

For Roberts, it started as a family crisis and has blossomed into a national crusade.

Almost two decades ago, Roberts said she found out about her 14-year-old daughter’s abortion after searching her room and finding a questionnaire from the clinic under her pillow. She was searching the room because her daughter seemed depressed and the mother suspected drug abuse. She said her daughter was so damaged physically and emotionally by what turned out to be a botched abortion that she required more than $27,000 for hospitalization in a psychiatric center and surgery for a pelvic inflammation. Roberts has taken her fight for parental notification laws to a number of states, including Alaska, Delaware, Wisconsin, Nevada and Rhode Island.

She first brought her fight to Florida in 1999, when she testified before the Florida Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade it to find an earlier parental notification law constitutional.

“Who better to know their daughter than a child’s parent?” Roberts said, in an interview with Women’s eNews. “The people who love her the most are the ones who need to know to give her follow-up care. This law will allow parents to put their arms around their daughters and say ‘We love you, we can work this out together.'”

Deceptive Language Charged

On the other side of the Florida fight is Baker, who along with her physician husband and two daughters, have filed suit against the ballot measure, saying it deceives voters into thinking it preserves constitutional rights of privacy, when actually it does the opposite. The ACLU and two Florida chapters of Planned Parenthood have joined the family in the lawsuit.

“As a community, of course we should be encouraging parents and teens to communicate with one another. We totally support that. But by law, we cannot let the state dictate that communication has to happen on the state’s terms in order for young women to get reproductive health care,” Baker said. “We think Florida’s daughters deserve more than a misleading and dangerous constitutional amendment.”

Legislative Democrats have remained silent on the upcoming ballot measure. While many voted against putting it on the ballot, other Democrats, especially from the conservative Panhandle, voted for it, leaving no strong consensus on the issue.

But the issue was a priority this year of House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, a Republican from Plant City, who is running for U.S. Senate and hopes to get as many conservative Republicans to the polls as possible. Byrd has made the ballot proposal a top issue and has accused his GOP foes for the open Senate seat of being “mediocre Republicans” because they’re not strong on abortion issues. Roberts has been corresponding with Byrd on the best way to campaign for the Nov. 2 initiative.

Smoke Screen Charged

“The ballot measure is clear and compelling, but the ACLU and Planned Parenthood are trying to mislead the court,” Byrd said. “Their legal argument is just a smoke screen to disenfranchise Florida voters and take away their right to decide the issue, just as the liberal courts have stripped parents of their right to know.”

Roberts has also testified before the U.S. Congress on behalf of H.R. 1755, the Child Custody Protection Act, which would make it a federal crime for a non-parent–including a grandparent, aunt, or older sibling–to take a minor across state lines for an abortion if doing so would violate her home state’s parental notification or consent laws. The measure most recently was heard July 20 in a House subcommittee.

Roberts sees parental notification movements as “just plain common sense.” She cites polling that she says shows 78 percent of Americans support parental notification laws. She said more than 200,000 teenagers undergo abortions each year in states that don’t require parental involvement.

Eyes on Roe v. Wade

But many pro-choice groups worry that the real goal of those who are pushing parental-notification initiatives is to chip away at the abortion rights that were hard won by Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision giving women the legal right to abortion.

“It’s a political tactic,” said NARAL spokesperson Evelyn Becker. “Their tactic is to continue to try to insert the government into families, into decisions that should be made by a woman, her family and her doctor.”

Opponents of parental notice and consent laws also point to the danger that abused teens, especially victims of incest, will try to self-induce an abortion or find an unlicensed abortionist to do it for them out of fear of further abuse at home.

Indeed, at least one teen died at her abusive father’s hands when she was forced to tell him he had made her pregnant and she needed his permission to obtain an abortion, Gwen Margolis, a Democratic state senator from Aventura told her Senate colleagues during a debate.

Margolis drew shocked looks on the Senate floor earlier this year when she held a coat hanger above her head to illustrate how some women handled unwanted pregnancies when abortions were illegal.

“We’re talking about young women not being able to tell their parents, and their legitimate doctor that they would go to has to tell their parents. Now that is pathetic,” Margolis said. “We’re talking about young women dying.”

The Senate passed the bill 27-13, while the House passed it 93-25, with only Democrats objecting.

Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist in Tallahassee, Fla.

For more information:

NARAL Pro-Choice America–
Young Women:

Mothers and Advocates for Mothers Alone Inc. (MAMA):