Mother May I?

Who remembers the 2005 and 2006 California propositions that tried to instate parental notification rules for minors seeking abortions? You know, the ones that failed? Well, not so fast. Looks like it’s probably going to be on the ballot this year, too. Meet the man you can thank:

Jim Holman, owner of the San Diego Reader, has spent millions trying to persuade Californians to pass a law requiring parents to be notified before their underage daughter has an abortion.

After two failed ballot measure campaigns, Holman said last year that he didn’t want to try again.

But when other anti-abortion advocates, including winemaker Don Sebastiani, launched a third campaign, Holman couldn’t resist opening up his checkbook once again.

“Sebastiani was not deterred. He said, ‘We have to go back again and again,’ ” Holman said. “He led with big donations and I sort of followed.”

The result could make California political history.

The $1.8 million donated by Holman and Sebastiani so far is likely to put a parental-notification initiative before voters for the third time in four years. The measure would require a physician to notify a parent or guardian 48 hours before performing an abortion for a girl under the age of 18.

If the measure qualifies, it would be the first time since the California initiative process was established in 1914 that the state’s voters will consider the same measure so many times in a four-year period.

Planned Parenthood is arguing that Holman, while not doing anything illegal, is abusing the electoral process, and I agree. No, money alone does not get an initiative on a ballot, but if you spend $1.8 on an issue that inspires the kind of passion abortion does and don’t manage to get the just-under 700,000 signatures needed in a very large state, you’d have to be pretty damn inept. Holman is, of course, perfectly within his rights — that doesn’t mean there’s nothing unethical about it.

You might be aware that parental notification and consent laws are a pet peeve of mine. It’s incredibly insidious legislation wrapped up in a pretty package, and I’m convinced that the reason it gets so little attention, and so many people support it, is because we as a society believe that minor girls are the property of their parents and should have no rights over their own bodies. The common argument you’ll hear (and that appears in this article) is “how can a minor girl not be able to get an aspirin from the nurse’s office without parental permission, but be able to have an abortion without her parents even knowing out it?” And I can’t help but agree; why the hell are we so patronizing to teenagers that we don’t trust them to figure out for themselves whether or not they have a damn headache? It does in fact make perfect sense that in a society which supports those kinds of rules, people would think a parent deserves a say in their daughter’s pregnancy choice, innately and without question.

Laws that require parental consent are terrifying — it’s the legal sanctioning of forcing your daughter to give birth. And laws that only require notification are hardly better; regardless of whether or not it’s legal to stop your daughter from having an abortion, forced notification will almost certainly have that outcome for at least a few young women. A significant majority of states have parental notification or consent laws; 35 states have a law in effect, and 9 have a law on the books that is not in effect due to constitutional concerns (pdf). California is one of those nine states.

Here’s a look at this particular legislation:

Political analysts suggest that a presidential election will hurt the measure’s chances. Turnout is expected to be high among Democrats, who generally oppose parental-notification measures.

Supporters argue that a new feature should help the measure pass this time.

Like previous measures, this one would require notification before a minor has an abortion. Girls who face a medical emergency or obtain a waiver from a judge are exempted.

The new initiative also provides another option. Girls who say they are victims of parental abuse can tell a physician to notify another adult relative who is at least 21 years old, including a grandparent, aunt, uncle or sibling. Existing law requires health practitioners to report known or suspected child abuse to authorities.

To bypass a parent under the initiative, the girl has to accuse a parent of abusing her in the past and sign a written statement saying she fears physical, sexual or severe emotional abuse in the future. Her statement then would go to the adult relative who is being notified about the abortion.

“We’re modifying the law to respond to Californians who were concerned about abusive parents,” Short said. “It’s a progressive law for a progressive state.”

Planned Parenthood’s Hall said the new provision changes nothing.

“It’s a deceiving, phony solution,” he said.

Hall said the provision would require a girl to level an accusation against a parent under a penalty of perjury. Hall believes that this provision would intimidate the most vulnerable girls.

Clearly Short and I have very different definitions of the word “progressive.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that these options suck. I thought about it when I first came across this article: when I was a teenager, who could I have had notification sent to in lieu of my parents? And I drew a total blank. If I had needed an abortion, I probably would have told my mom, but just playing devil’s advocate, what if I couldn’t? I quite honestly would have been totally screwed. The initiative is also making a fatal flaw in assuming that a teenage girl with abusive parents will have relatives who don’t protect those abusive parents — and who she would actually trust enough to send a signed statement reporting that abuse.

Of course, provisions in parental notification/consent laws that protect those in abusive situations are necessary, and so are the restrictions. It’s the same exact thing with abortion bans that provide rape exceptions: not only are they horrific from a stance in favor of women’s health and rights, they’re also utterly unenforceable. You’ve got two choices: allow the legislation to mean absolutely nothing and just let anyone who claims abuse or rape to slide through, or act in a way that is intolerably cruel towards some of the most vulnerable members of our society, despite the fact that the law is supposedly written specifically to protect them.

The truth is, without the restrictions policing the abuse/rape exceptions, women would lie, and I sure as hell don’t blame them. If you needed an abortion and your only way to get one was to say to the doctor that you were raped, without having to file a report, how many of you ladies would do it? As a survivor myself, I cringe at the thought. But I would — and any scrupulous doctor would find a subtle way of telling me to do it. I’m sure that teenage girls who are terrified to tell their parents about their pregnancy for reasons other than fearing a beating (fearing that they will try to stop the abortion, disallow her from seeing her boyfriend, yank the money that was supposed to pay for college, etc.) would lie in a heartbeat, too. You need to have something in there to prevent the women who just want their damn rights from thwarting the ridiculous and oppressive law. And as soon as you put it in, you’re punishing women who have already suffered a great deal. Some of them just won’t be able to handle the reporting process, and won’t get the abortions they need. And some of those women? It’s not at all a stretch to say that at least a few are going to end up severely hurting or killing themselves with illegal pills, bleach or wire hangers.

There’s another trait that notification/consent laws and abortion bans with rape exceptions share, and may seem obvious: they’re both designed to prevent abortions. Usually, those supporting notification/consent bills won’t say as much. It’s a hell of a lot easier to find voters who will buy into the “it’s a parent’s right to know” line than “parents have a right to force their daughters to give birth.” And yet, there’s an interesting trend lately of supporters going with the honest/scary message, and it’s happening here, too:

Hall, who once held a top post in the administration of former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, said backers of this measure have a hidden agenda.

“This isn’t designed to solve a problem,” Hall said. “It’s designed to whittle away at Roe vs. Wade,” the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

Campaign spokeswoman Short, who has nine children and is counsel to the Legal Life Defense Foundation, acknowledges that the measure is promoted by those who favor outlawing abortion.

“Do we think abortions are bad? Yes,” she said. “That’s why we support this law. It reduces teen pregnancies and abortions.”

Further, Short said, more than 30 states have enacted parental-consent laws. Massachusetts has had a parental-consent law in place for more than 20 years without any further restrictions, she said.

Short provides no explanation for her belief that a law requiring parental notification for abortion will reduce teen pregnancies (the law will make teens more careful? um, no.), but it doesn’t take long to figure out how it might reduce teen abortions: parents will find ways to disallow them.

Personally, I’m grateful that they’re taking up this tactic, even as I’m befuddled by it. As I’ve said, I think that most of the people who support these bills — as they even have some popularity among those who consider themselves pro-choice — are just doing it because at first thought, it sounds about right. If you pay any attention to politics in this country, you know that most voters don’t do a whole lot of independent or in depth thinking, and the rule applies here.

Two years ago, I was at a family planning conference, and one of the panels was about defeating precisely this kind of legislation. A woman on the panel helped to write the ads that were a part of the campaign to reject one of these propositions. She showed us the television spot they did in 2005 for Prop. 85, and explained how it got rave reviews — and it gets mine, too. (Mild Trigger Warning)

What I love about this video is not only the fact that it’s chilling, honest and says a lot with very little. I love it because it addresses what I think is the central reason, in most locations, that this type of legislation succeeds: People. Don’t. Fucking. Think. They often forget (and I think we’re all occasionally guilty of this) that people have lives different from their own. It just doesn’t occur to them. This commercial gets people to think for 30 seconds. And if the woman on the panel could be believed (I thought she could), polls flipped in the right direction once the ad started running.

The good news, of course, and I absolutely don’t want to downplay it, is that the proposition is expected to fail. It has failed twice already; the second time around, it lost by a bigger margin. There’s also the fact that a higher Democratic turnout is expected this year. The prospects aren’t good, and part of me (a small part, that doesn’t argue things on principle) says fine, let Holman throw his anti-choice dollars down the drain. But with all of the other scary-ass anti-abortion legislation being thrown around this year, and with so much of it actually succeeding, we’d all be lying or a little too complacent if it didn’t make us a bit uneasy.

Cross-posted at Feministe

0 thoughts on “Mother May I?

  1. Jen

    I had the extreme pleasure of voting against this piece of legislation the first election I came of age for in California, ironically as soon as the law stopped having a potential to effect me. Creepy anti-abortion subtext aside, this law is trying to legislate family dynamics and communication. Yes, every girl should talk to her parents about these things, but writing it into law bypasses precisely what makes this kind of honesty within families special, not to mention assuming every family is leave it to beaver perfect (if she’s pregnant in the first place this is already suspect). Anti-woman, anti-girl, anti-family. Flush it again!

  2. Niki

    I can’t help but think that the winemaker ought to realize that his product probably results in some unwanted pregnancies.

  3. Cara A.

    First of all I am very much against this proposed legislation. I was raped at 16 by a 21 year old man, and even though he admitted to “having sex” with me, he still didn’t even get a charge of statutory rape. So I am in favor of statutory rape laws because *sometimes* they can help prosecute rapists of young girls, and I believe that sexual maturity is essential to consent. My point is- since I am against required parental consent for abortions and am in favor of statutory rape laws, I often wonder about the contradiction this presents…if the law says that a minor is not mature enough to consent to sex with an adult(I know stat. rape laws vary all over the country) but at the same time I believe that she is mature enough to decide whether or not she wants an abortion…can we have both? I guess I wanted someone else’s thoughts on this.

    Anyways love your blog, always gets me thinking although I admit I can’t read it everyday anymore, some of this shit you write about pisses me off too much and I have to stop.

  4. Pingback: The Gap Between Talking and Doing « Pizza Diavola

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