CALFORNIA -- that spiritual Mecca of the "off-our-backs" philosophy of government -- has just turned voluntary teen-age sex into a police matter. Under a law that went into effect Jan. 1, doctors and a number of other people who have a "reasonable suspicion" that a teen-ager is sexually active have to report that suspicion to police or other child protection agencies as a possible case of child abuse. Honest. I'm not joking.
Maureen Higgins, deputy attorney general for California, says the law is the handiwork of a group of conservative state senators who feel strongly that parents should be notified about pregnancies and that a child needs parental consent for an abortion. "But there is a difference whether you have parental consent for abortion and whether you have to take a child abuse report [of sexual activity] to police," she says.
As it stands now, she says, the law is going to overload the child protection agencies and draw time away from serious child abuse cases. And, because of the penal code provisions in the law, it puts any teen-aged girl under the age of 18 who has had intercourse in the position of violating the law, she says. Further, if a girl goes to a doctor and indicates she is having intercourse with her boyfriend and wants birth control pills, the doctor must report it to authorities, because that is a clear indication that she is violating the law against sexual intercourse.
This foolishness all came about during a well-intentioned attempt to overhaul the state's child abuse law by broadening the definition to include sexual assault of children and by making it mandatory for certain categories of people, including doctors, to report suspected abuse to authorities. As originally drafted, the bill included statutory rape as a form of sexual assault that had to be reported, but left it up to the discretion of doctors whether to report voluntary sexual activity by teen-agers 14 and over.
In California, however, the path to good intentions is fraught with moral concerns, which showed up in Sacramento in the person of Rev. W. B. Timberlake, chief lobbyist for the Committee for Moral Concerns. Timberlake would have none of this business of leaving it up to doctors' discretion. A group of senators managed to get the bill pulled back from the governor's office when it was ready for his signature and got the discretionary clause deleted, so that all suspected activity must be reported.
An amendment to the law was introduced in the Senate yesterday and the California Medical Association, which failed to get the exception written back into the law before it took effect, has gone to court seeking an injunction against enforcement. No hearing date has been set. The CMA claims the law puts physicians in the position of choosing not to report the sexual activity, and as a consequence facing the prospect of going to jail, or of going ahead and reporting it and breaching the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship. "The probable result is that sexually active teen-age girls will be afraid to consult physicians for needed care, including treatment not related to sexuality," the CMA says.
Timberlake, who says he represents 1,200 pastors and 6,000 church leaders from about 40 denominations in California, says he is interested "in making it more difficult for someone to be a venereal disease carrier or to take advantage of young girls."
He also says that one of his organization's goals is to return more control of family matters to parents. The senators who supported his stand "felt there had been too much controlling of pregnancy taken away from parents. A teen-ager goes to a clinic and gets an abortion, and then six months later she gets another one, then six months later another one and the parents never know about it and the girl ends up being unable to bear children. You've heard of that." All the claims that the law will prevent health practitioners from giving birth control advice to teen-agers -- since that might them party to sexual abuse of children -- is just a "smokescreen," says Timberlake, "for the idea that they want to be able to refer people for abortions without ever having to report it."
Consevatives and fundamentalists very clearly have targeted the programs that provide sex education and birth control information to teen-agers. Part of the argument always has been that sex is a family matter, that government should not be involved. Furthermore, goes the argument, sex education and availability of birth control only encourage teen-age sexuality (read immorality).
But now we are finding that far from keeping this in the family, the Committee for Moral Concerns is turning voluntary teen-age sexual activity into a matter to be reported to authorities. in so doing, its spokesmen are violating the privacy of the teen-agers and their families and putting government precisely where they claim government shuldn't be.
They're calling this the "fink law" in California and I must confess when I first heard about it I thought it was a joke. No society that honors the civil rights or privacy of its individual members would legislate such a thing. But it has happened in California and it's no laughing matter.