IT IS THE kind of question that we are facing these days more and more, the kind that has no good answers, that affects women far more fundamentally than it ever could affect men. It involves abortion and the rights and best interests of teenage girls. Specifically, the question is whether a Massachusetts law requiring the consent of both parents or a judge before a minor can get an abortion is constitutional.
That was the question submitted to the Supreme Court yesterday. The court has already struck down a similar Missouri law so the courtroom talk yesterday had a lot to do with how the Massachusetts law is different (not very) and with precedent and due process and undue burdens being placed on one class of people. The talk was more of law than of people.
There was not much about what it is like to be a teenage girl, to find out you are pregnant, to have to tell your parents about it and listen to them rant and rave. And there wasn't much point made about teenage girls being born into homes where strong religious beliefs militate against abortion and homes where such girls might be forced into bearing a child. The Massachusetts law allows women in that situation to go to court and ask a judge for consent to have an abortion, allows in other works for the girl to try to totally defy her parents. But, anyone who has ever been a teenage girl can tell you how much help that legal provision is.
The law has protections for unmarried teenagers but no matter how you cut it, an unmarried teenage girl would not be able to make the judgement privately, by herself, or by consulting solely with her doctor. She would have to ask her parents. She would have to tell them what had happened to her.
The idea behind all of this, according to the lawyers who argued Massachusetts' case, is that the best interests of the teenage mother are served by promoting and stimulating parental consultation on this issue. "Age," argued Massachusetts assistant attorney general Garrick F. Cloe, "does bear a relationship to the ability of a child to make a decision."
The state legislature enacted this law to protect the best interests of the minor, said Cole, and while some health care decisions should be made by the adolescent alone, or in consultation with her doctor, the legislature has singled out abortion, sterilization and methadone maintenance as health care decisions that teenagers must make after consulting with their parents and getting their consent.
These are decisions, argued Cole, that juveniles can't make by themselves. "Abortion is a terribly difficult consideration and a child (who can make other decisions) my find herself totally at sea when she faces this one," he argued.
Attorney Brian A. Riley, also defending the law, argued that parents can assure that their child gets the best medical care for the surgery, the best follow up care, and that the parents, if they know their daughter has become pregnant, can help resolve whatever emotional problems the young woman may have. Informed parental counseling, he said, is far better for a child than the advice and counsel of doctors who may only have narrow clinical or monetary interests in the case.
All of that is probably true. We are hearing more and more these days about abortion mills and licensing problems and counselors who don't really counsel. We are beginning to take a long hard look at gynecologists and obstetricians, and surgeons specializing in female problems, and we are finding that they are performing more hysterectomies and more Caesarian sections than necessary. There might have been a time, in other words, that we could say teenage girls don't need the advice and consent of their parents, that all they need is a good talk with their gynecologists, that the doctor knows best.
But we know now that the doctor doesn't always know best, that his medical judgement might be affected by his religious considerations. And there is a suspicion in the land these days, that the doctor's medical judgement may also be affected by his financial interests.
And we also know that father doesn't always know best. We know that parents don't always give informed advice or sage counselling when they find out that their teenage daughter is pregnant. Who can forget the scenes in movies and in real life when the enraged father, discovering that his daughter has done It, flies into a rage and shouts, "I'll kill him." Mothers may be less violent and aggressve in their outbursts, but they may be equally convinced that the pregnant daughter has ruined her life.
This distressed frame of mind is hardly one that can beneficially counsel a daughter on such a dreadfully serious decision as to whether or not to abort, whether to continue a pregnancy, whether to keep a child or relinquish it for adoption.
What, then is left? If you believe abortion is wrong, that it should not be performed at all or only in the most extreme cases of incest or rape, then the matter facing the court yesterday is resolved simply. The answer is relatively easy. But, if you are someone who finds the abortion question too complex for simple answers, then the question of abortion for teenagers does nothing more than complicate an already puzzling issue.
The lawyers argued yesterday about the best interests of the teenage girl, and if that is the overriding consideration, then we probably haven't found the best answer yet. There is something terribly troubling about the prospect of a young woman, 13 or 14 years old, facing the pregnancy dilemma alone.
Perhaps such young women will be lucky enough to have reasonable parents, or to find a doctor they can trust, a family planning clinic that has counselors skilled in helping teenagers, friends and sisters who may be able to help them. But you can't legislate any of this. You can only hope that young women who can't talk to their own parents can find other counsel.
If they can't then they have to depend on their own judgment. Their best interests are far better served by court decisions that leave them on their own, than by court decisions that compound their personal delemma by forcing them to deal with guilt-ridden, hysterical parents.