AMONG THE MOST widespread state restrictions on abortion are laws mandating some kind of parental involvement -- either notice or consent -- when minors seek to end unwanted pregnancies. Thirty-eight state legislatures have enacted these laws, though they are not enforced, either because of court order or executive decision, in 16. It has been widely accepted that this kind of restriction had broad support, but on Election Day voters in Oregon laid that myth to rest. A referendum on that state's ballot presented the question of parental notice to the citizens directly for the first time in this country, and they voted it down decisively.
Abortion-rights advocates spent a lot of time and money trying to educate the voters on this issue, and it paid off. They found that citizens have a basic misconception about minors and medical care, and a standard objection was along the lines of: "A child has to get her parents' permission even to get her ears pierced, why not for an abortion?" The fact is that while no one could ever find a state law covering ear piercing, there are plenty of statutes specifically giving minors the same rights as adults to determine their health care. In almost every state, for example, minors can seek treatment for drug abuse, alcoholism, venereal disease and prenatal care without involving parents. The same is true for contraceptive advice and services. There is, then, substantial precedent for avoiding parental involvement, particularly on matters that might cause family conflict or distress.
While most young women under 18 do consult with at least one parent before seeking abortion, about 45 percent choose not to do so. Some fear reprisal, some don't want to disappoint or embarrass their parents, and others come from families where communication of any kind has always been difficult. When the state requires notice, there is statistical evidence that more abortions are delayed into the second trimester, that many teenagers will travel to neighboring states for the procedure and that a few resort to dangerous, illegal alternatives that put their lives in jeopardy. While most state statutes provide for some kind of judicial by-pass so that a judge instead of a parent can give consent, this process is intimidating, humiliating, cumbersome and often expensive. In the long run, these laws don't reduce the number of abortions, they only make them more expensive and more difficult.
Next year, the question of parental consent is certain to be considered by the Maryland legislature and may come up in Virginia as well. The arguments that were persuasive in Oregon will be made anew, and voters can let their representatives know that they do not consider this restriction negotiable. It is the kind of change that used to be an easy one for antiabortion forces to win. But Oregon may have been a turning point.