The nine old men were at it again last week. In what has become a regular event, they have offered us more of their opinions on the subject of teen-age sex.
The majority of the Supreme Court justices want to have a chilling effect on this hot topic. But they keep churning decisions that are far more punitive than helpful.
On this particular day, the justices ruled on a Utah statute that makes doctors notify the parents of teen-age girls before performing abortions. Then they ruled on a California statute that penalizes males, of any age, for having sex with a female minor.
In both cases, they said that states did have the right to try and put some brakes on teen-age sex -- by increasing the punishments.
The first case dealt with a tough question: Should a girl who needs her parents' consent for, say, an appendectomy be able to have an abortion without her parents' knowledge?
In this situation there is obviously a difference between a girl of 12 and of 17, and the court tried at least to take age and maturity into account. In three majority opinions (this is a court that cannot even agree on its agreements), they said that it was okay to make a doctor inform parents if the patient is living at home, still dependent, and makes no claims to being either "emancipated" or "mature."
But in real life, three-fourths of the teens seeking abortion already tell their parents, and tell them willingly. The other quarter obviously feel unable to. The chief justice said that the Utah law would uphold "family integrity" by telling parents for them.
Well, I am all for families helping each other in a time of crisis and surely teen-age pregnancy is a crisis. But I don't think we can legislate openness, or enforce communication in that minority of families.
The real intent of the Utah statute is obviously to prevent abortions. The Chief Justice knew this when he approvingly wrote: "State action encouraging child birth . . . is rationally related to the legitimate governmental object of protecting potential life."
As a result of the decision, some girls who are ruled "too young" to make the decision about an abortion will become mothers.
Deeply buried in all this is the notion that motherhood is the best punishment, and fear of pregnancy is the best "deterrent" to teen-age sex.
If the girl is to be punished by pregnancy, well, the court ruled (in some fit of enforced "equality") the male must also be punished. He is to be punished by criminal statute.
The court upheld the California statutory-rape law, which says that a male, and not a female, is liable for prosecution if he has sex with an underage partner. He may be imprisoned for not more than a year.
The desire to mete out equal punishment is clear in Justice Rehnquist's opinion. This men-only statute is constitutional, he says, because the risk of pregnancy is already a "substantial deterrence to young women." A criminal sanction imposed solely on males, he says, serves to "roughly equalize the deterrents on the sexes."
I understand some of the motivation behind this opinion. It is absolutely true that in the past 10 or 15 years males have taken less and less responsibility for sex. Certainly, the burden of contraception has fallen onto females, and the number of males who even ask whether their partner is protected is ludicrously low.
But the solution is not to threaten males with criminal action, to fill our courthouses or fails with 15- or 17- or 20-year-olds who have had sex with their girlfriends. We may as well put rifles back in the hands of irate fathers and have our daughters wear buttons labeled "Jailbait."
I think both laws and decisions reflect the punitive posture being adopted toward teen-agers, not just by the courts but by many of us. Rather than trying to educate our children in sexual morality and values, we are embarked on a major attempt to scare them straight.
Talk about chilling effects! According to the Supreme Court, there is one way to deal with the very real issue of teen-age sex. Our girls will have babies. Our boys will go to jail. And all will be right with the world.