Should minors have to tell their parents or a judge when they want to terminate a pregnancy?
Sometimes girls who are pregnant fear telling a parent that they want to have an abortion. Perhaps a parent has abused her physically or emotionally. Or a young girl thinks she will be thrown out of the house or will disappoint her family.
Under an Illinois law that’s been enforced for five and a half years, those minors must tell a parent or a judge before having an abortion. The General Assembly is wrangling with whether to repeal of the 1995 Parental Notification of Abortion Act.
It is only when minors have something to fear that they do not talk to their parents about an abortion, state Sen. Elgie Sims said. A Democrat from Chicago, he is sponsoring legislation to repeal the law.
“What we have right now is a situation that puts young people at risk. Right now, we have a situation where if you are a young person … and you have an unplanned pregnancy … you have the opportunity to be ostracized by your family, to be put in physical danger,” Sims said.
He acknowledged that the idea of requiring parental notification sounds reasonable.
“It sounds as if it helps to get conversations going,” Sims said. “But in reality, what we have are individuals who have to then turn to the person … oftentimes who has harmed them for permission to go forward with their health care decisions.”
A Senate committee approved the legislation but it still needs the OK of the full Senate and House. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive issues, 37 states require parental notification of abortion, and 36 have a judicial bypass procedure, where a young woman can ask a judge to waive the parental notice requirement.
Attorney Peter Breen, who represents the conservative Thomas More Society, which staunchly supports parental notification, said he believes repeal “would turn Illinois into an underage abortion haven. Before our current parental notice law was in effect, we had thousands of young people getting abortions without the parents knowing including many hundreds, if not thousands, coming from out of state in order to obtain abortions that were illegal in their home state.”
Anti-abortion advocates point to the law as being behind a reduction in the number of abortions, but others say the trend is mainly the result of improved access to more effective contraception.
Beyond the statistics, those who oppose abortions simply believe parents should know if their child is considering terminating a pregnancy.
Dawn Fitzpatrick*, who works with anti-abortion programs through the Archdiocese of Chicago, testified before the Senate committee.
“Ask yourself, would you want to know?” Fitzpatrick asked. “Would you want to be there for your daughter as she faces such a decision, a decision that we know carries with it significant physical and emotional aftereffects, a decision that sometimes involves an older and/or abusive male who would like nothing more than to erase the evidence of his mistreatment of your daughter?”
Chicago attorney Melissa Widen has, on a volunteer basis, represented 26 teens seeking judicial bypass approval for an abortion since the law starting being enforced in 2013. Through that program, the ACLU has helped about 400 teens go before judges.
Widen said it is difficult enough for the teens to tell her the details. She says that fright and humiliation is exacerbated when she goes before a judge and court reporter.
“I represented one very frightened and desperate young woman who had a very difficult relationship with her mother,” Widen said. “She told me when I first met her — and then she told the court at her bypass hearing — that when her mother got angry at her, she would say such hurtful things that the teen would cut herself afterwards.”
Another of Widen’s clients was a 15-year-old who had already had an abortion.
“She went into a severe depression afterwards because her mother told her father, her sisters, her extended family and her father stopped speaking to her, her sisters ridiculed her, the rest of her family didn't speak to her, and she became suicidal,” Widen said. “She did not know about the bypass option at the time.
“So, there is real harm and the real danger that that teen experiences as a result of being required to notify their parents about a very safe medical procedure that they need, and that they’ve thought a lot about, and that they know is the best option for them and for their futures.”
But Fitzpatrick, of the Archdiocese, said young people are often impulsive and lack the maturity to make such decisions.
“So, if for a young person who might fear that they're going to disappoint their parents, or they don't want to talk about it, it might be easier to go ahead and get an abortion,” Fitzpatrick said. “They don't have to consult their parents.”
But retired Cook County Judge Susan Fox Gillis testified before the Senate committee that 99.5 percent of the time, minors are deemed mature enough to get bypass approval.
Regretting the decision can be harmful, too, said Fitzpatrick, who works with a project to provide resources for those who’ve had abortions.
“I had a woman call the other day who said to me, ‘When I went to have this done, nobody told me how it could hurt me. They just said it was good for me.’ And she said, ‘And I've been affected by it since,’” Fitzpatrick recalled. “So in 2019 to seek help for something that happened in 1974 because she didn't have the right judgment at the time or the right advice … why wouldn't we want loving parents to be able to help someone along in that situation?”
But Widen, the volunteer attorney, sees it differently.
“Having seen firsthand, up close and personal, the effects of this law on the lives and the health and the emotional well-being of many, many teens over the past five years, I can tell you that this law is dangerous,” Widen said. “It is unnecessary. It does nothing to protect teens and it causes great, great harm.”
Note: Dawn Fitzpatrick's name was misstated in the original version of this story. NPR Illinois regrets the error.
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