Putting pregnant teens on trial

October 13, 2014

Corrie Westing examines an Alabama law with a new form of restriction on abortion.

MINORS SEEKING abortions without their parents' permission in Alabama are being subjected to a demeaning, shaming and potentially dangerous legal process, after a law passed in July requiring that young women go through a hearing where the court could appoint a lawyer to represent her fetus.

According to the new law, not only could the fetus receive legal representation, but a young woman's parents may be involved, and any party can be called as a witness to testify. These women will have lost all right to privacy--and even for those who give their consent, parents of pregnant teens will have to comply with an onerous requirement to prove parentage or guardianship.

Since 1987, pregnant women under the age of 18 seeking abortions in Alabama have been required to obtain parental consent or a "judicial bypass"--getting permission from the court to go around the requirement. The new process laid out in House Bill (HB) 494 gets rid of any confidentiality for young women--and could expose them to harm once the case is known to family members or others who they likely didn't want to inform of the pregnancy or the decision to terminate it.

Standing up to the anti-woman agenda of the Religious Right
Standing up to the anti-woman agenda of the Religious Right

Studies have demonstrated that even without parental involvement laws, the vast majority of teens involve a parent in the decision to have an abortion. But that hasn't stopped right-wing anti-abortion groups and politicians from attempting to legally enforce parental involvement in the decision.

Given that the young women who would choose to circumvent parental involvement are likely at the highest risk for abuse and homelessness, the right seems determined to use these laws to put teens through a humiliating process just to subject them to increased shame and potential violence.

AS ONE weapon in the right's arsenal to limit access to abortion, parental involvement laws have been instituted in 38 states. The only protection for minors that these states must enforce, as determined by the 1979 Supreme Court decision in Bellotti v. Baird (II), is a process for giving a pregnant minor an "out" from parental involvement--which allows her to demonstrate "either that she is mature enough and well enough informed to make her abortion decision, in consultation with her physician, independently of her parents' wishes," or that the abortion would be in her "best interest."

So young women who don't feel like they can talk to their parents about their decision to end a pregnancy have to navigate a complicated legal system, try to convince a judge and be able to appeal a decision. Furthermore, this time-consuming process--whether it's the process that was already on the books, or the new one under Alabama's HB 494--delays the procedure, increasing the cost and the chance of complications with abortions.

The Alabama law creates the most onerous judicial bypass system yet--turning what was previously more of a "fact-finding" process into a criminal proceeding, where the young woman's sexuality, relationships, religious views, family systems and academic standing is not only up for scrutiny, but is on trial. This process may as well force Alabama's teens to wear a scarlet "A" for even considering abortion.

HB 494 was part of a quartet of bills backed by the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition that passed in March--including one banning abortion after a heartbeat could be detected (effectively, all procedures after six or seven weeks' gestation) that died in committee. Another that didn't pass in the state Senate required women seeking abortions due to a fetal anomaly (considered a "therapeutic" abortion) to receive options about fetal and neonatal hospice as an alternative.

The other bill that survived and was signed into law, HB 489, increased the time a woman must wait to get an abortion, after receiving a package of "information" about the risks of abortion, from 24 to 48 hours.

The Alabama Pro-Life Coalition used its success in the legislature to launch its campaign in the streets through Alabama's "40 Days for Life," bringing its misogynist message to the doors of the state's only remaining abortion clinic and building its base of support around its crisis pregnancy center.

SHAMEFULLY, THE only opposition to the right's agenda on the state House floor was on fiscal grounds.

According to USA Today, Democrats opposed the anti-abortion legislation because of how costly it would be to the state's taxpayers to defend the laws in court--a similar "argument" they used to oppose anti-immigrant legislation. NARAL Pro-Choice America rates Alabama with an "F" for choice-related laws and classifies the entire state House and Senate as anti-choice.

More steadfast pro-choice advocates have questioned the internal logic of parental notification and the judicial bypass process--that teens need to be verified as "competent" enough to make a decision like having an abortion, but no one verifies the high degree of maturity required to continue a pregnancy to term and parent or make an adoption plan.

Forces like the ACLU have cited research and expert professional opinion from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists indicating that teens are indeed competent enough to decide on abortion.

Liberal pro-choice forces are also right to point out the right's craven disregard for the real challenges that parenting teens face and the lack of resources dedicated to ensuring pregnant teens get the services they need to remain "competent" as they navigate parenthood.

We absolutely should cite research indicating the medical and psychosocial problems inherent in these restrictive laws, in order to expose the lie that these laws have anything to do with protecting adolescents or families. If these arguments help the ACLU in its legal challenge to HR 494, this would be a boon to Alabama pregnant teens' health and safety.

But our movement would be stronger if we go beyond the arguments about protecting women's health and expose the right's hypocrisy. We should question the claim that adults should be able to speak on behalf of teenagers' competency to handle pregnancy decisions, whether from a perspective of expanding or limiting teens' sexual and reproductive autonomy. Alabama teens should have the right to decide what pregnancy decision are right for them, because they are human beings and because an attack on their rights is an attack on all reproductive freedoms.

We have to understand that this law, like all laws restricting abortion access, isn't really about protecting young women or even addressing the health and social needs of minors who may or may not want to be pregnant.

We have to expose the fact that HB 494 and all parental involvement laws are about policing women's sexuality and reproductive lives--and crucially, about continuing to whittle away access to abortion by targeting a subset of women who are vulnerable. We have to assert that all people need the right to access safe and legal abortion, no matter their age, in order to participate as equals in society.

Instead of making its mission to "decrease the need for abortion," if groups like NARAL campaigned unapologetically to defend abortion, even for teens, we'd be on more solid ground as a movement. The movement needs to take a different moral stance: solidarity with teens, and against restrictions on abortion access.

The fact is that it's politically easy to target teens' access to health care. They can't vote, and everyone seems to know what's best for them, because they're not "of age" to provide consent to abortion for themselves. Yet if politicians can take away abortion rights from teenagers, the door is then open for new attacks on reproductive rights. That's why we should view an attack on Alabama's teens as an attack on the reproductive rights of all.

The ACLU's legal challenge to HB 494 is a welcome development--but what is also needed is action on the ground in Alabama, across the South and across the country to highlight the medical and political dangers of this draconian, sexist law and challenge its underlying message--that young women cannot be trusted to make medical decisions when it comes to their own pregnancies.

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