The Virginia House of Delegates, following a nationwide trend, has passed legislation requiring unmarried girls under the age of 18 to secure the consent of their parents or a judge before having an abortion.
Were the measure inspired primarily to protect the physical and emotional health of the girls involved, and to protect the parents who, after all, bear the ultimate responsibility for the welfare of minor children, it might make some sense. Abortion is a surgical procedure that is not without occasional serious complications; abortions done in clinics, which unlike hospitals, are not equipped for emergencies, carry certain risks. Any sensible parent would want to be involved in a teen-ager's decision to proceed with an abortion to ensure their child gets the best kind of care available. But this is not what this measure is about.
Listen to the words of Del. Theodore V. Morrison Jr. (D-Newport News), who sponsored the bill: "I know I can't stop abortions . . . . This is as much as we can do constitutionally." And: "There's another life involved . . . . the life of the unborn child. I'm not going to get in a metaphysical argument, that's just what I believe."
The motivation behind the measure is not to protect the teen-ager and her parents but to stop abortions among the group of women who were left vulnerable to political winds by the Supreme Court's decision in Belloti v. Baird. That decision, handed down in 1979, struck down as unconstitutional a Massachusetts state law that required unmarried girls under the age of 18 to secure the consent of both parents or a judge before obtaining an abortion.
The opinion, written by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., found that the law was unconstitutional because it allowed an "absolute third-party veto" of a minor's decision to get an abortion, even though she might be fully competent and mature enough to decide to abort a pregnancy, and it did not provide her with an opportunity to persuade a judge that an abortion was in her best interests.
The ruling requires states to provide a "mechanism for a young woman to either demonstrate that she is mature or for the court to act in loco parentis if she is immature," according to Gail Harmon, a lawyer who represents the National Abortion Rights Action League. "The problem is that the mechanism is often very difficult for someone to take advantage of, particularly if one is poor or scared of authority. Studies have shown these rules have a disproportionate impact on poor, black teen-agers."
Nine states have passed laws requiring the consent of a parent or juvenile court judge and 12 states have passed laws requiring clinics to notify parents of a teen-ager's request for an abortion. A number of these laws have been struck down in courts and it is unclear if the Virginia legislation would meet court tests.
The rights of minors may be among the most complex issues in the whole abortion dispute, potentially pitting parents against judges, children against parents, and creating situations in which parents or judges who have strong antiabortion views can force a girl to bear a child. It also places a teen-ager, already in a turbulent enough situation, in the position of having to deal with hysterical parents.
Virginia Del. Joan H. Munford (D-Montgomery) put the situation in a nutshell: "I have seen young girls literally beaten by their parents" when they found out their children were pregnant, she said.
Laws requiring parental or judicial consent cannot help but prolong the delay of an abortion, creating increased risks among teen-agers who, as Harmon points out, are frequently slow in seeking abortions in the first place.
Maryland has developed legislation that is far more sympathetic to the plight of teen-agers than the consent law passed in Virginia, and other states would do well to consider it. It requires a physician to notify the parents, but allows for a second physician to waive the notification if he or she determines it is not in the child's best interest.
It is not antiabortion legislation targeted at the girls who are least able financially, emotionally, or physically to bear and raise children. It is not legislation singling out a group that doesn't vote, can't lobby, can't buy legislators. It is a law designed to protect children, to involve their parents when feasible in a traumatic, difficult decision that can have long-term consequences on their physical and emotional health. It doesn't consign children to back-alley butchers. It protects them, and that is the way it should be.