Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–After suffering a legislative defeat Wednesday with the passage of a bill that stiffens restrictions on minors seeking an abortion, pro-choice advocates are expressing outrage and mulling over how to prevent the initiative from becoming law.

“The House put an anti-abortion agenda before a teen’s well-being,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy group in New York. “The act creates a host of absurd legal hoops for teenagers, parents and providers that not only confuse and punish teens facing unwanted pregnancies, but seriously harm them.”

Attention now turns to the Senate, where the bill’s supporters say their chances are good given the GOP’s enhanced 55-seat majority. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said at the beginning of the year similar legislation was one of his top 10 priorities.

“It’s the first time we really feel optimistic that this bill will pass,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who sponsored the bill.

Pro-choice advocates concede nothing, saying the outcome is unknown because the Senate has not recently addressed the issue. The current Senate version of the bill, meanwhile, is more modest than its House counterpart, setting up the prospect of a fight in conference committee if the chambers pass different versions.

If House and Senate negotiators are able to work out their differences, and the measure is cleared by both chambers, the president is expected to sign it. At that point, pro-choice activists will likely turn to the courts to fight a measure they consider unconstitutional.

“We’re going to do everything we can to try to stop it from harming young women,” said Dara Klassel, a staff attorney at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The measure, which passed the House Wednesday evening, would make it a federal crime to take women under the age of 18 across state lines to have an abortion without the consent of a parent, legal guardian or judge. It sailed through by a vote of 270 to 157. Votes in favor included 54 Democrats.

The legislation makes an exception for those whose lives are endangered by pregnancy. It makes no exceptions for health considerations or for those who have been victims of abuse or incest.

The bill would also require doctors to notify parents in person at least 24 hours before performing an abortion or in writing at least 72 hours in advance of the procedure. Those who do not do so could be sued for damages. The Senate version of the bill does not currently include this provision.

Thirty-four states have enacted laws that require the notification or consent of a parent, although some of those laws are not enforced because of court battles or actions by state attorneys general, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

States without such laws are currently under no federal obligation to honor other states’ laws. But if the bill becomes law, notification would essentially be required in all states.

Klassel said the measure lays out a complex set of rules that endanger pregnant young women. She said it might compel young women to involve an abusive parent in their decision making, deter those who may have to travel longer distances or wait longer periods for abortions, carry a pregnancy to term because requirements for abortions would be higher, turn to an illegal practitioner for an abortion or perhaps perform one on themselves.

“A considerable number of minors are going to be really badly affected by this,” she said.

Supporters Defend Legislation

Supporters disagreed, arguing that the legislation is necessary to ensure parents are involved in their children’s decisions to have an abortion.

Calling it a victory for parental rights, they say the bill will prevent family planning clinics, boyfriends and other individuals from coercing vulnerable teens into having abortions without their parents’ knowledge.

“Young girls are falling victim in an alarming rate under the influence of older men and others who do not have their best interests at heart,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who has championed the measure. “Minors are being pressured into making what may be one of the most important life-altering decisions without the advice and help of those who love and care for them.”

The bill’s supporters also argue that the legislation will foster respect for state laws. And they note that it accommodates abused teens with a provision that allows doctors to notify state child-abuse agencies instead of parents.

But the provision is flawed, according to Bebe Anderson, a staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. Teens, she said, are often reluctant to speak about abuse, especially when they are required to sign a written statement that could trigger an investigation. Moreover, the provision does not protect teens who have been abused by anyone other than a parent or those who reasonably fear abuse but who have not experienced it, she said.

Critics also fault the measure for imposing burdensome regulations on doctors, who say they will have to familiarize themselves with the laws of all other states and risk liability if they inadvertently violate those laws.

“It is already time consuming to keep up with the laws of my own state,” Warren Seigel, a member of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, said during a congressional hearing on the matter last month. “What this proposed legislation doesn’t take into account is the amount of time it is going to take for physicians to get law degrees.”

A Larger Campaign

Critics say the bill is part of a larger campaign to outlaw abortion. In recent years, anti-abortion rights groups have pursued an incremental strategy designed to impose gradual restrictions on abortion rather than pushing for more sweeping legislation, such as attempts to amend the Constitution to ban the practice.

The piecemeal approach has paid off for abortion rights foes in recent years.

In the last Congress, two bills that undermined abortion rights were passed. One banned a procedure opponents call “partial birth” abortion, a law that has the potential to outlaw all abortions performed after the 14th week of pregnancy and is now being fought in court. Congress also criminalized injuries to fetuses that arise from violent offenses.

This Congress, abortion rights opponents have set their sites on the parental consent legislation as well as another proposal that would require women who seek mid- or late-term abortions to acknowledge in writing that the fetus has the capacity to experience pain from the procedure.

“It’s a very careful strategy to highlight the most terrible sounding situations,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), said, adding: “It’s been substantially successful.”

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women’s eNews.