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Debate: Parental consent for underage abortions

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Should parental consent be required for underage pregnant women to have abortions?

Background and context

Teenage pregnancy is a stressful experience, and many people would agree that it would be sensible for a pregnant unmarried teenage girl to seek advice from a responsible adult. Parental involvement laws would make notification of pregnancy and consent for abortion from one or both parents mandatory. Such laws exist in 43 US states, but are enforced in only 32. Most of the statutes apply to young women under 18 and provide for a court bypass procedure should a young woman be unable to involve her parents. Most of them include exceptions for medical emergencies. In principle, of course, similar laws could be introduced anywhere where abortion is legal. The definition of underage will vary from culture to culture, and will need clear explanation by the proposing speakers.NB I would strongly recommend that this debate avoid arguments about the morality of abortion in general. The motion necessarily assumes that abortion is legal, so questions about whether or not it should be are beside the point - arguments against abortion in general would point to the need for an outright ban, not for parental consent for it.


Contents

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Right to know: Do parents have a right to know of pregnancy/abortion?

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Yes

Parents have a right to know what their children are doing: they are legally responsible for their care, and as parents they have a proper interest in any case. Any good parent would want to know if their daughter were having an abortion; any good parent would want to help her daughter make a good decision on the matter, and to prevent her making a bad decision.

Even more so it is irrelevant to really debate this because in the United States Constitution parental rights are guaranteed to the parents until the minor becomes either a legal adult or emancipated. Even though left-leaning judges have taken away some parental rights, if it ever came up the the US Supreme Court it would be ruled to the parent(s).


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No

There are good reasons for not telling parents of a pregnancy. Parents who are opposed to abortion may force their daughter to continue with a pregnancy against her wishes, even at a risk to her health or life. Disclosing that you are pregnant necessarily requires that you disclose that you are sexually active: some parents may disapprove of this to the extent that they throw their daughter out of the house, or become physically or emotionally abusive.


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Analogy: Is abortion similar to other things requiring consent?

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Yes

Under-16s need parental consent for medical treatment and surgery: abortion should not be an exception. There are plenty of other things children are not allowed to do without their parents’ consent: tattooing, ear-piercing, school activities such as school trips; parents can withdraw their children from school religious activities without their children’s consent; under-16s are not allowed to get married without their parents’ consent. Abortion is at least as important a decision as any of these.

Moreover almost all schools in the US, whether elementary, middle, or high schools, require parental consent for a trained and registered school nurse to administer basic drugs such as ibuprophen and tylenol. If the law doesn't entrust or allow minors to do basic self-administration of common, virtually harmless drugs, then why would or should the law entrust or allow minors to go through potentially life-threatening procedures like abortion, which has physical and psychological harms almost guaranteed from the procedure.

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No

Parental consent is not legally necessary to have a baby, and nor should it be. The ultimate authority over whether to have a baby must be the baby’s mother, not its grandparents. It is absurd to say that someone is old enough to have a baby, but not old enough to have an abortion. The parental consent required for surgery is a legal sham in any case, since in serious cases a refusal can be overridden on medical advice with a court order: in effect, parents can consent to surgery on their children, but cannot withhold their consent. This is not a good example for the proposition.


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Stakeholders: Do parents have a stake that gives them a right to consent?

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Yes

The parents of teenagers have to live with the consequences of teenage motherhood: they often bear a particularly large responsibility for looking after the children, because teenage mothers are usually 1) single; 2) living at home; 3) unemployed; 4) in full-time education. They are economically dependent, and unable to give all of their time to their children. If the mother’s parents are going to have to look after their grandchild and to live with it, they should have a say on whether it is born in the first place.


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No

This is irrelevant, because the proposal is not that parents should be able to compel their daughters to have abortions, only that they should be able to veto an abortion. The fact that parents of teenage mothers often play a major role in their grandchildren’s upbringing does not mean that they are allowed to insist that their children should produce grandchildren for them against their will.


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Health: Should it be required for reasons of health?

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Yes

The decision whether to have an abortion or continue the pregnancy often has a major long-term impact on a woman's psychological and emotional well-being, her ability to continue formal education, and her future financial status. The proposed measure helps ensure that pregnant teenagers get support and guidance from their parents in this important decision. If parents are not informed, there is a risk that they and their daughters will become permanently estranged at a time when parental support is most important.


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No

This measure is unnecessary for stable and supportive families, in which daughters may well choose to discuss their pregnancy with their parents in any case, and ineffective and cruel in unstable and troubled families, as they do nothing to transform the unhelpful atmosphere in which the daughter is reluctant to tell her parents she is pregnant, and simply make the family situation worse.


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Deviations: Is it required in cases of bad parents?

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Yes

In exceptional cases, we appreciate that it may be inappropriate for a child to tell her parents she is pregnant: where she is estranged from them, for example, where she has been abused by them, or where telling them would present a serious foreseeable threat to her safety. In such cases, the courts could allow a waiver so that she would not have to tell them, as happens in those US states where this policy exists. In normal circumstances, however, they should be informed and consulted, and these unusual cases do not affect the principle that this is a sensible law.


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No

Obtaining parental consent necessarily imposes a delay into the abortion process, which increases the likelihood of complications: generally speaking, the earlier in pregnancy an abortion takes place, the safer it is. Necessary safeguards such as judicial waivers introduce even more delays - at least 22 days in the US. For the sake of the mother’s health, it is better not to require parental consent.


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Age cut-off: Is setting a specific age cut-off for parental consent necessary?

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Yes

This may be one of the circumstances which could be grounds for a judicial waiver - again, it should not be thought to invalidate the principle that parents should be consulted over whether underage children should have abortions. For young women nearly at the end of the 16 or 18 age barrier, the case for parental consultation is clearly less compelling; for 13-year-olds it is overwhelming. We have to draw the line somewhere, and remain sensitive to individual circumstances.


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No

Placing an age boundary after which a woman no longer needs to obtain parental consent, say at 16 or 18, may encourage a woman just below that age to wait until her birthday before seeking a legal abortion - again, the later the abortion, the more dangerous it is. The law is not good at allowing for individual circumstances, especially when it is required to make quick decisions, so it is unlikely to mitigate the impact of new rules.


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Encouraging abortion:

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Yes

When the ‘quick-fix’ of abortion as a response to teenage pregnancy is no longer so easily available to teenagers, attitudes change. Teenagers are less likely to have sex, or more likely to use contraception if they do - both of which have positive effects on health, by cutting unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.


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No

Campaigns for sexual abstinence and contraceptive awareness are to be encouraged, but should not be an alternative to abortion provision. No sensible person would choose abortion as a good alternative to contraception, because it is more dangerous, more traumatic and harder to obtain than contraceptives - it is a necessary last resort. If sexual abstinence is not a sensible reaction to abortion being made more inaccessible, then making abortion more inaccessible is not a sensible way of increasing sexual abstinence.


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Encouraging abortions: Does parental consent encourage abortions?

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Yes

Requiring parental consent will lead to a fall in the number of abortions. In Minnesota, the number of legal teenage abortions fell by 25% when this measure was introduced; in Virginia it fell by 20%. Since abortion is - quite apart from moral questions about its permissibility - physically and psychologically traumatic for mothers, especially teenage mothers, this is a good thing.


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No

There are various rational reasons why a child might not want to tell her parents she is pregnant, such as foreseeable parental disapproval. Requiring her to tell her parents may encourage her to run away from home. In the US, there have been numerous examples of teenagers crossing state lines to states which do not require parental consent or notification in order to get abortions - this could happen in Europe too (indeed, many Irish women already travel to Britain seeking abortions, which are banned in Eire). A teenager may also seek an unregulated ‘backstreet’ abortion or try to carry out an abortion on herself - both of which are highly dangerous. These factors account in large part for the fall in recorded teenage abortions in US states with similar laws.


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Abuse: Is parental consent to abortions in the interest of teenage rape victims?

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Yes

In some cases of sexual abuse which have resulted in pregnancy, abusers have taken their victims to have an abortion without the knowledge of the victims’ parents. Requiring parental consent could help to uncover such cases of abuse.


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No

If an abuser cannot take his pregnant victim to a properly run and regulated abortion clinic, he may attempt to procure a ‘backstreet’ abortion for her. This is more dangerous to the mother, and will obviously not be covered by the proposed measure.


See also

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