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When parental involvement laws go wrong.

IT HAD ALL THE HALLMARKS of a pre-Roe v. Wade tragedy: a desperate young woman, an illegal abortion, a promising life truncated by a shortsighted law that assumed politicians, rather than women, knew best. But when Becky Bell, a high school junior, died of an illegal abortion, the year was neither 1958 nor 1968. It was 1988, fifteen years after Roe declared that the constitutional right to privacy guaranteed a woman's right to choose abortion safely and legally.

Becky lived in Indiana, where state law required that young women seeking abortions obtain permission from either their parents or a judge. The family was close, but--like many teenagers--Becky was afraid of disappointing them by revealing the pregnancy. The idea of appearing before a judge, discussing this intimate situation with a complete stranger who was in a position of authority, must have been terrifying as well. Rather than go to court, Becky had an illegal abortion. A few days later, she complained of feeling sick. At first, her parents thought she had pneumonia or the flu. Her fever spiked to 104. By the time her parents got her to the emergency room, Becky was so weak they had to carry her inside.

Her mother later recounted what happened when they arrived: "I heard the nurses say her veins had collapsed. They put oxygen on her, but Becky pulled the mask off. I leaned down and said, 'Honey, tell Mom, tell me, honey: She said, 'Mom, Dad, I love you, forgive me.' And that was it. Her heart stopped."

I met Becky's parents, Bill and Karen Bell, in late 1989. We were each testifying before a committee of the Michigan House of Representatives that was considering a parental consent law. Michigan's governor at the time, Jim Blanchard, was strongly pro-choice, but Michigan's anti-choice movement was one of the most aggressive and well organized in the country. The anti-choice movement was pressuring the legislature to pass a measure they believed would seem reasonable. Who, after all, does not agree that parents should be involved in their daughters' decisions? But the Bells knew the issue was more complicated. They had agreed to travel throughout the country to tell their story so legislators and others would understand the real dangers of state-mandated parental consent and notification laws. Their willingness to speak out is one of the most personally courageous, selfless acts I have ever seen.

I already knew the Bells' story, but I was nonetheless heartbroken meeting them for the first time. As a mother, I could only imagine the pain they must have endured. Before the Michigan hearing began, I saw Bill and Karen across the room. Bill is a big, blond, garrulous man, the kind whose warmth envelopes you. Karen is more reserved than Bill, but every bit as engaging and caring. Bill was interested in politics, but neither of them was politically active before Becky's death, and certainly not on this issue. They were friendly, middle class, and hardworking. If a tragedy like Becky's death could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. I walked up, introduced myself, and embraced them both.

"I'm just devastated for you," I said. "As a mother, I don't know how you bear the pain. It must be very hard to tell Becky's story, but I want you to know how grateful we are that you're willing to talk about your experience so that it doesn't happen again to another family. I don't know how to thank you for what you're doing"

Bill was in tears as he evoked painful memories. "At first, we were not sure about telling our story. But we needed to give some meaning to this tragedy. Nothing can make up for this loss, but we have to try to salvage some good from it by making sure society learns from Becky's death."

State-mandated parental involvement laws like the one Michigan was considering are emblematic of a tactic the anti-choice movement has employed since Roe v. Wade was decided. Rather than trying to ban abortion outright, which most politicians acknowledge the American public does not support, they instead chip away at the right to choose, one restriction at a time. In the case of parental involvement laws, anti-choice legislators--for all their claims about promoting family values--are not social workers or family therapists. They are politicians intent on bending the law to their own purposes and denying women the right to choose regardless of the consequences. They take complicated issues and reduce them to emotional, highly charged rhetoric and simplistic solutions that often sound perfectly reasonable on the surface.

Parental involvement laws wound certainly sound reasonable to me, as a mother, if I did not know the harm such requirements can cause. Having raised three daughters, I also know how challenging parenting teens can be, especially when it involves issues of their emerging sexuality. Anti-choice politicians believe government can and should force families to communicate regardless of the fact that family communication is sometimes nonexistent or dysfunctional. Even in families where communication is healthy, teenagers become more private at exactly the same time they become aware of their sexual feelings.

My daughters certainly did. I thought we had as close and open a relationship as parents and children can have, but throughout adolescence our communications were often strained. It worried me, as it does many parents. I worked hard to keep the lines of communication open. I talked frankly with them about responsible sexual behavior and especially their right to say no to sex.

But I was the one doing the talking, not the girls, and that's the key. The simple fact is that a high percentage of teens say they are sexually active, and not all of them talk to their parents. All parents assume their own daughter would tell them about a pregnancy, and the reality is that a majority voluntarily do so. The younger the teen, the likelier she is to involve her parents in a decision about pregnancy. Many young women who do not involve a parent have good reasons, including the fear of abuse or being kicked out of their homes. Pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest add an especially tragic dimension to the problem.

The idea that young women who are unable to talk with their parents should be forced to appear like criminals before a judge is absurd. Many adolescent women are confronted with abusive judges. A Louisiana judge asked one such young woman what she would say to her fetus if she had the abortion. Another judge in Ohio refused to grant permission for an abortion to a seventeen year-old college-bound student because she "had not had enough hard knocks in her life." Their condescension is outdone only by the irony: Girls willing to endure judicial hearings to obtain an abortion because they believe they are not ready for motherhood are actually engaging in one of the most mature and thoughtful acts of their lives.

Ideally, of course, teenagers will talk with their parents about being pregnant. But government cannot mandate healthy family communication, and politicians should not risk the health and lives of teens by interfering in private family matters. The real question is what society can do to educate young people about sexuality, and thereby reduce the number of adolescent pregnancies and the need for abortion. And in cases where young women do not talk to their parents and are unwilling to see a judge, should we risk their lives by denying medically safe abortions? These are complex issues that do not have easy solutions.

I understand the swirl of emotions parents feel, and I respect the fact that there are divergent views on this question. Many people have counseled me to drop the issue. It's futile, they insist, and it makes the pro-choice movement look extreme. After all, who could possibly be against a law mandating that parents be involved in something as serious as choosing an abortion? My answer is: anyone who knows Bill and Karen Bell.

Baird v. Bellotti and Parental Involvement

by Joni Baird

A NEW LAW IN UTAH, approved in March, offers one of the latest examples of the anti-abortion effort to limit access to family planning services and thus chip away at a woman's right to choose. This law requires young women under eighteen who seek an abortion to first secure at least one parents permission. Although an exception to this can be sought n juvenile court (on grounds of a doctor's determination regarding life or health, or in cases of incest, abuse, or estrangement from parents), there is no exception for the law's parental notification requirement.

This latter provision may be the laws undoing. In one of the majority Opinions of the US Supreme Courts eight-to-one ruling in Baird v. Bellotti (1979), four of the justices found a Massachusetts law unconstitutional in part because it required "parental consultation or notification in every instance, whether or not in the pregnant minor's best interests, without affording her an opportunity to receive an independent judicial determination that she is mature enough to consent or that an abortion would be in her best interests." Because this case is so crucial for defending minors abortion rights, concerned activists need to understand its history and meaning.

Baird v. Bellotti began when the Massachusetts legislature, overriding the governor's veto passed a law in 974 requiring all minors, unless married, to obtain written consent of both parents or, if neither would do so, of a superior court judge. Abortion rights pioneer Bill Baird (who two years earlier had achieved a Supreme Court victory in Baird v. Eisenstadt that secured the right of unmarried people, including minors, to birth control) instituted an immediate legal challenge. He obtained a temporary restraining order from a federal judge so that his and all Massachusetts family planning Clinics could Continue providing abortions to minors. His case involved three teenage patients: Mary Moe I, II, and III.

What followed was a five-year uphill battle. In the beginning of the challenge a district court invalidated the Massachusetts statute. This led to the first round of Baird v. Bellotti being heard on appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1976 the justices remanded the case to the lower court in order to give the legislative body a chance to make the statute more flexible. But the legislature didn't so act because the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the law's constitutionality, holding that the issue before a superior court judge isn't whether a minor is capable of giving informed consent but if an abortion is in her best interest.

The case was then returned to the district court, a three judge panel which held, in October 1977, that the statute was unconstitutional because of its absolute requirement of parental consultation, placing an improper burden on the right of a mature or immature minor. This led to the case eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme Court again, which on July 2, 1979, declared the statute unconstitutional, concluding that "every minor must have the opportunity--if she so desires--to go directly to a court without first consulting with or notifying her parents." The Court also provided an overriding principle, and a bold rebuke to the Massachusetts legislature, when it stated: "The Bill of Rights is not for adults only."

But the struggle wasn't over. In the wake of the case, a controversy developed because the Court had applied the right to bypass parental involvement only to one who was a "mature minor"--though the Court provided a vague leniency when it said that if a "pregnant girl fails to show she is competent to make the abortion decision, she must be permitted to show that an abortion nevertheless would be in her best interest." This led the National Abortion Rights Action League to declare in the July 2, 1979, Boston Globe that the ruling took "a step backward" and was "burdensome to teenagers." Baird himself asked how one would define a mature minor, arguing that it was ludicrous that one so designated should be granted an abortion while an "immature minor" would be forced to have a baby and become a parent Even more absurd was that, once she gave birth, the minor became emancipated and therefore legally "mature." As a mother she no longer needed permission for an abortion!

Since the 1979 decision was handed down, however, the High Court has revisited parental consent and notification cases, mostly reaffirming or fine-tuning the Baird v. Bellotti decisions. States have followed suit. On March 6, 2006, the New York Times was able to say: "Nearly all state parental involvement laws allow for minors to bypass their parents by going through a judge."

Thus, through a pair of Supreme Court victories--Baird v. Bellotti I in 1976 and Baird v. Bellotti II in 1979--Bill Baird won for minors the right to seek abortion without parental notification or veto. This means that any state with a parental involvement law affecting a teen seeking an abortion must establish a separate procedure through which parental involvement can be waived,

We'll no doubt soon see what that means for Utah.

Joni Baird is the co-director of the Pro Choice League (www. a nonprofit, tax exempt organization through which she and her husband Bill Baird lecture on this and related issues. Both have written frequently for the Humanist and can be reached at

Kate Michelman is the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and 2003 recipient of the Humanist Heroine Award of the American Humanist Association. As one of the nation's most respected pro choice activists, she continues to guide the pro choice movement in addition to being a proud mother and grandmother. This article was excerpted from her new book, With Liberty and justice For All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose, and is reprinted here by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright [c] 2005, Kate Michelman.
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Title Annotation:abortion laws
Author:Michelman, Kate
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:1U3IN
Date:May 1, 2006
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