Requiring parental notice would let government into homes and doctors' offices, without improving teen health
October 1, 2006
The thought of a teenage girl with an unintended pregnancy evokes a reaction that transcends abortion politics. Most Oregonians would hope this girl could talk to her parents about getting help, whether an early-term abortion or prompt prenatal care.
The question for voters is whether the government should force its way into the conversations about abortion. We think it shouldn't. Oregon voters should reject Measure 43, the parental-notice measure on the November ballot. A "no" vote would maintain current laws on adolescent health, which are based on sound public policy, and it would protect the doctor-patient relationship from government intrusion.
A "yes" vote would simply put a new obstacle between pregnant teenagers and timely medical care.
Measure 43 would prohibit Oregon doctors from performing abortions on girls ages 15 through 17 without first notifying a parent via certified mail. Sponsors say the measure is necessary to close what they characterize as an abortion loophole: They say abortion has a unique status in Oregon as the one thing teenagers can do without their parents' knowledge or consent.
This claim is false. The laws governing minors, parents and health care tell a more accurate story.
Under Oregon law, children need parental consent for nearly all medical treatment. By adolescence, however, the rules begin to change. Minors of any age can seek confidential birth control. Those who become pregnant can decide on their own to give birth and keep their babies or place them for adoption.
By age 14, teenagers can be treated for mental health problems or drug addictions without parental involvement. By age 15, teenagers are considered old enough to consent to nearly all medical care, including HIV testing and treatment, dental work, hospital care, surgery and abortion.
These laws offer no airtight guarantee of confidentiality. In fact, doctors are explicitly empowered to talk to parents without the patient's consent "whenever the disclosure is clinically appropriate and will serve the best interests of the minor's treatment"; for example, if a teenager is depressed.
What's more, doctors are guided by professional medical ethics -- not to mention common sense -- to involve parents whenever possible. As the American Academy of Pediatrics says, this involvement can help patients get better.
But there's a reason why parental involvement is encouraged rather than required: In some cases, the requirement can harm the patient. Decades of research into adolescent behavior have shown that teenagers (much like adults) will delay or avoid getting help for sensitive medical issues when they fear getting exposed or judged for their condition.
With pregnancy, when every week counts, this is the biggest health risk of parental-notification laws.
Measure 43 offers one concession to teenage girls who are ashamed or fear a violent reaction at home. These girls can request a hearing with the state and plead their case before an administrative judge. This option isn't acceptable. No one in Oregon should be required to beg a state bureaucrat for medical care.
If a parental notification law passed, only a few hundred girls would be affected. The teen pregnancy and abortion rates in Oregon have plummeted over the past 20 years, and the state is ranked sixth in the nation for smart family planning. Similarly, current laws governing minors and health care don't directly affect most families. Usually, the parents are right there in the waiting room, offering support and holding the credit card.
But for some teenagers, a degree of autonomy and privacy is
essential for them to get the medical care they need without falling
further into crisis. Oregon voters should keep them in mind when voting
no on Measure 43.