This Blog is cross-posted with Permission from NC Policy Watch
By Rob Schofield
Proposal for nation’s strictest health care consent law for minors would do terrible damage
Many years ago, when I was a young lawyer in another state, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a courageous, salt-of-the-earth couple who had made it their mission to save the lives of young, American women. The impetus for their action was an indescribably horrible tragedy: the couple had lost their wonderful, talented, soon-to-be-college-bound teenage daughter – the apple of their eyes – to an illegal, back-alley abortion.
Over the course of several nights as I accompanied and introduced the couple at a series of legislative and community meetings, I repeatedly heard them tell the story of how their daughter had become pregnant accidentally with her high school boyfriend. Desperate to avoid telling her parents for fear of the shame and disapproval she imagined it might provoke, she began asking friends at school how she might obtain an abortion.
Unfortunately, the girl lived in a state that required parental consent for a legal abortion and word on the street was that there was no easy way around the requirement. So, tragically, she turned to an unlicensed illegal party. The results were disastrous; the girl died from an infection that resulted from the quack’s actions. What should have been a quick, safe and routine procedure was clumsily and tragically botched.
And so it was that I found myself listening to (and frequently crying with) this couple on multiple occasions as they traveled from event to event, pleading for lawmakers and average citizens to rethink their kneejerk support of restrictive, parental consent laws for health care.
They understood the instinct to support such laws, they said. Such laws once seemed intuitively logical to them too. But events had intervened and forced them to grasp and acknowledge the folly in assuming that every young woman lived in a situation in which she could broach such subjects with her parents. As they learned so painfully, even well-adjusted, high-achieving kids in loving parent-child relationships cannot always bring themselves to talk to their parents when faced with such crises.
The issue returns
Now, today, a quarter of a century later, North Carolina is confronting another aspect of the same tragic debate. In the latest ill-informed and heartless act of the 2013 legislative session, a committee of lawmakers in the North Carolina House has advanced a bill that would not only make it even tougher for a young woman to obtain an abortion without parental consent (current law already makes this extremely difficult) but that would enact what appears to be the nation’s strictest parental consent for health care law generally.
Under the proposal, minors would have to obtain parental consent signed and witnessed by a notary in order to obtain an abortion as well as treatment for several other sensitive health care issues, including sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and substance abuse, pregnancy and mental illness.
It is, frankly, a list that is stunning in its breadth, scope and obliviousness to the realities of the modern world.
Think about it for a moment: According to the supporters of the legislation, a North Carolina physician who encounters a 17 year old with active gonorrhea or syphilis should not treat that child with potentially life-saving antibiotics (or, indeed, even diagnose the illness in the first place) until the child produces a notarized letter from his or her parents approving of the treatment. The same would be true for a high schooler who musters the courage to tell his high school nurse that he has an alcohol abuse problem, “Sorry Johnny,” she must say, “I can’t give you any help at all until you get your parents to sign a letter witnessed by a notary at the bank or a local law office and bring it back.”
Amazingly, even pre-natal care would be forbidden for a young woman who wants to carry her pregnancy to term. Even HIV treatment would be forbidden!
Honestly, what kind of troubled individual thinks up this kind of nonsense?
Responding to the proponents
The rationale for the legislation is both simple and simplistic. According to the legislative supporters and zealots at the North Carolina Family Policy Council and North Carolina Values Coalition, it’s just “common sense” that parents should be involved in all health care decisions of their minor children. After all, they point out; it’s unlawful to sell minors alcohol or tobacco products or many over-the-counter medicines. Why should the health care services spelled out in the bill be any different?
If kids are required to talk to their parents before obtaining treatment, goes the “logic,” perhaps destructive behaviors will be prevented in the first place. Here’s bill supporter, State Rep. (and former John Locke Foundation staffer) Marilyn Avila: “I just think it’s an insidious sort of thing when you look at the directions our kids have taken. Maybe we’ve created those problems.”
But, of course, such arguments are premised on several obvious and logically fatal flaws; not the least of which is the patently absurd notion that all children live in homes in which they can safely and productively approach their parents about such matters.
The parents of the young woman I spent time with 25 years ago loved their daughter and by all indications had a healthy relationship with her. But even still, as they discovered to their immense and unceasing horror, she felt it a literal impossibility to broach the subject of her pregnancy with them.
Now think about the thousands upon thousands of teens who are the product of broken or dysfunctional homes or, God forbid, the victims of parental abuse. One can only wonder how the bill sponsors think those conversations on the subject of notarized letters would go.
How does the child suffering with alcohol abuse broach the subject to the father who is already on his second beer at breakfast? How does the young woman sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend raise the issue of her STD?
Ideology trumps the experts
At yesterday’s committee meeting, the parental consent proposal was opposed by a list of medical, public health, child advocacy and civil rights groups as long as your arm. In a strong and united voice, these groups pleaded with lawmakers to see the error of their ways and acknowledge that their proposal will not only harm the children in question, but quite likely, thousands of other individuals that those children will come in contact with.
As, has occurred with so many other issues before the General Assembly this session, however, the experts’ entreaties went in one ear and out the other of the ideologues behind the bill. Boosted by their own strange and passionate conviction The Bible somehow commands legislation of this ilk, the proponents refused to make the slightest concession.
Of course, the experts should have expected such treatment. For if the proponents of the bill had even the slightest sincere interest in the well-being of the young people in question or any logical consistency, they would have long ago amended state law to require parental consent not just for abortion, but for carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth — something that is exponentially more dangerous than undergoing a safe, legal, early-term abortion.
Unfortunately, the proposed legislation has no relation to logic or consistency or the well-being of young people. The point is to impose cramped and obsolete Victorian values, advance the cause of “personhood” for fertilized eggs and punish those of whom the sponsors disapprove.
And sadly, until someone figures out how to force young people to obtain notarized written permission from their parents prior to having sex, consuming drugs and alcohol or having mental health problems, it looks like counter-productive, after-the-fact punishment is likely to remain the basis of state policy in this area.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development for NC Policy Watch–a progressive public policy think tank that is a special project of the Justice Center.