Arnold Schwarzenegger

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–The mostly pro-choice state of California will decide in November whether to require parental notification for minors seeking an abortion in what is shaping up to be a test case of whether pro-choice voters approve of parental involvement in a teen’s decision to terminate a pregnancy.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special election on June 13 to push his agenda on government reform, which includes a spending cap, overhauling congressional redistricting and delaying tenure for the state’s teachers.

Among the other measures that have qualified for the November ballot is the Parents’ Right to Know and Child Protection Initiative. Schwarzenegger has said he supports parental involvement in abortion but has not come out for or against the initiative.

The ballot initiative would amend the state constitution to require abortion providers to notify the parent or guardian of girls 17 and under at least 48 hours before performing the procedure. Abortion providers would also have to report all abortions performed on minors to the state, which would track them. Failure to comply would result in civil fines. Minors could seek court action to waive parental notification.

“The goal is to protect young children from the harmful effects of parents being excluded from important health decisions,” said Albin Rhomberg, spokesperson for the initiative drive, which is being sponsored by Life on the Ballot, an Oakland-based coalition of anti-choice groups supporting the measure.

Consent Laws in 33 States

Thirty-three states have parental notification or consent laws in effect or that are about to take effect. California has a law requiring parental notification, passed in the 1980s, but it was overturned by the state Supreme Court.

For decades, about two-thirds of Californians have consistently supported a woman’s right to a first trimester abortion, according to the Field Poll, a nonpartisan public opinion poll. But Californians may prove tolerant for more parental involvement in teen abortions. In a 2002 Field Poll, 62 percent of registered voters said they supported parental consent, while 29 percent opposed.

Parental involvement appears to be gaining acceptance among pro-choice leaders. High-profile pro-choice Democrats Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), recently have come out in favor of parental notification.

The U.S. Supreme Court in May agreed to consider an appeal by the state of New Hampshire of a federal appeals court ruling that struck down a parental notification law in that state.

The Supreme Court ruling, expected this fall, wouldn’t likely affect the California ballot initiative because it deals with an exception to the notification requirement for medical reasons.

The California initiative already has an exception for cases where continued pregnancy threatens the woman’s health.

Supporters of the California initiative submitted more than 950,000 signatures in order to qualify it for the state ballot. An initiative needs just under 600,000 signatures to qualify.

‘Deterrant’ to Promiscuity

Rhomberg said parental notification and consent laws are reducing teen pregnancy rates in other states.

“It’s a deterrent to teen promiscuity,” he says. “When teens know they will have to go to court or tell their parents, they think about it.”

Kathy Kneer, president of the Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, Inc., called the notion that parental involvement laws are reducing teen pregnancy rates “ludicrous.”

“Abortion rates are down in all states, including those like California that don’t have parental notification laws,” Kneer says.

There is little concrete research on the direct effect of parental notification or consent laws on teen sex or pregnancy. In one 1995 study of Missouri’s parental consent law, second trimester abortions by teens increased by 17 percent.

Nationwide, the abortion rate among teens ages 15 to 19 has dropped from 34 per 1,000 in 1994 to 25 per 1,000 women in 2000, according to the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Kaiser Family Foundation.

California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which looks at the impact of bills, estimates that based on the experiences of other states, abortions would decline by 25 percent if the notification law is enacted.

Law Could Hurt Most Vulnerable

Health care providers who treat teens express concern that the most vulnerable teens could be hurt by the law. A teen health clinic director in the San Francisco Bay Area who did not wish to be identified said that many teens seeking abortions come from households where notification is just not an option due to abuse, incest or neglect. With such chaotic lives, getting to the courthouse for a parental notification waiver isn’t an option.

“Of course we wish that fewer young women would get pregnant,” the clinic director said. “But this would punish families with less open and honest exchanges. Bad things happen to kids–that’s just a fact.”

On the question of whether notification would deter teens from having sex, the clinic director said the teen brain doesn’t work that way.

“There’s an immediacy to adolescents, delayed gratification isn’t a reality.”

Kneer said that rural teens would suffer most because they would not have easy access to a courthouse where they could get a parental notification waiver.

“In the real world, it’s just not workable,” she says. “What it really does is it delays their access to health care. Teens will have later abortions instead of early abortions.”

The widely publicized death of Holly Patterson, a teen-age Californian who died of a massive infection two years ago after taking the abortion pill mifepristone without her parents’ knowledge brought the issue of parental notification into the headlines.

Holly’s father, Monty Patterson, has since been leading a campaign to ban the abortion pill and is urging teens and parents to better communicate about these issues and supports parental notification. Holly Patterson would not have been required to tell her parents, however, because she had just turned 18 when she had the abortion.

Kneer said that she thinks the majority of Californians won’t support the initiative once they learn it would require amending the constitution and the details about parental notification.

“It’s an empty initiative because it gives parents nothing. Parents understand that prevention is the top priority.”

But Rhomberg said the law would help parents and teens communicate. “The main thing is to improve the situation,” he said.

Rebecca Vesely is a health care reporter at the Oakland Tribune.

For more information:

Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, Inc.:

Parents’ Right to Know: