If, in 1987, you had asked Bill and Karen Bell if minors should be required to obtain permission from their parents before receiving an abortion, they would have been all for it. It didn’t seem like an extreme or dangerous position — after all, shouldn’t parents have a right to know when a surgical procedure is being performed on their underage children?
Lack of access to effective contraception and safe abortion hurts women.
That all changed in 1988, when their 17-year-old daughter Becky died unexpectedly — 25 years ago today. Becky’s mysterious plea at the hospital, just before she passed away, was for her parents to “please forgive me.” Later, they found a letter that said, “I wish I could tell you everything, but I can’t. I have to deal with it myself. I can do it, and I love you.” Her words made sense when Becky’s death was determined to have been caused by a bacterial infection brought about by an illegal abortion.
In Indiana, where the Bell family resided, minors needed parental permission in order to obtain an abortion. Becky Bell, for whatever reason, didn’t feel she could confide in her parents about her unwanted pregnancy, and while judicial bypasses were technically an option, the judge in her district had never granted one.
The parental-consent law couldn’t force familial communication: Becky either obtained a back-alley abortion or attempted to self-abort — and the unsterilized equipment that was most likely used caused an infection that raged for six days before taking her life. Her grief-stricken parents wrote, “We would rather have not known that our daughter had had an abortion, if it meant that she could have obtained the best of care, and come back home safely to us.”
Most states have parental-involvement laws that apply to minors seeking abortion care. While some states merely require one or both parents to be notified of their children’s abortions, other states require parental permission. In Arizona, parental consent forms must be signed by one parent and notarized, but there are exceptions in the case of abuse, assault, incest, neglect, or medical emergencies. It is also possible to get a judicial bypass, in which the minor asks for a judge’s permission to receive an abortion. Arizona law holds judges to strict standards when it comes to waiving parental-consent requirements, which make it more difficult for minors seeking abortion services.
Parental-involvement laws interfere with a young person’s autonomy over her own body and violate her right to privacy. It is indeed important for young people to have good, open communication with their parents — but this is not the kind of thing that can be written into laws that only affect teenagers who might be in desperate situations. And, as can be seen in the case of Becky Bell, such laws don’t always have the best consequences.
For example, there is evidence that parental-involvement laws have little effect on abortion rates, but could lead to increased rates of second-trimester abortions. In Mississippi, pregnant 17-year-olds who were just a few months shy of their 18th birthdays were more likely to wait until they were legally adults to seek abortions. The second-trimester abortion rate, at least among teenagers, jumped by 19 percent after Mississippi instituted parental-consent laws. Researchers found similar trends in Texas, Minnesota, and Missouri after they passed parental-consent laws. Second-trimester abortions can be more difficult to obtain, are more expensive, have more complications — and, ironically, many abortion opponents find them more morally objectionable than abortions performed earlier in the fetus’ development.
Parental-consent laws are just one of many obstacles designed to make abortion more difficult to access. Here in Arizona, when Gov. Jan Brewer signed the abortion omnibus bill in 2009, advanced-practice clinicians were prohibited from performing abortions, contrary to the Arizona State Board of Nursing’s position that trained nurse practitioners were suited to perform first-trimester abortions. When the law went into effect in 2011, physicians couldn’t be found to take their places, which meant that abortion services were shut down in Flagstaff, Prescott, and Yuma. Any Arizonan outside of Phoenix or Tucson must travel to one of those cities — or leave the state — in order to obtain an abortion.
The 2009 bill also mandated a waiting period in which a woman must be counseled in person 24 hours before she can obtain an abortion. Child care or time off work must be arranged for two days instead of one, and women living outside of Maricopa or Pima counties are forced to travel longer distances and possibly secure overnight lodging. Low-income women, who are more likely to have difficulty making such arrangements, are disproportionately affected.
With so many obstacles in place — not only for minors, but for anyone for whom abortion isn’t readily accessible — it’s possible that some people experiencing unwanted pregnancies might try to find ways around them. Elsewhere in the nation, some women get arrested for self-inducing abortions, even when terminating their pregnancy would have been perfectly legal in a clinic. Many of these arrests take place in rural areas where access to abortion is fraught with obstacles.
Lack of access to safe abortions doesn’t just affect disadvantaged Americans. Outside of the United States, unsafe abortions are becoming more prevalent. Whereas most abortions performed in North America, Europe, and East Asia are deemed safe by World Health Organization standards, the exact opposite is the case in Africa, where an estimated 97 percent of abortions are unsafe. In South Central Asia, this number is estimated to be 65 percent. Lack of access to effective contraception, quality medical care, and safe abortion hurts — and even kills — women.
Ironically, the same abortion opponents who fight to enact restrictions on those seeking abortions also tend to advocate against quality, comprehensive sex education; access to condoms and contraception, not just for sexually active teens but also for adults; and social programs that make it easier for low-income or single parents to support a child. Meanwhile, supporters of abortion rights do everything they can to prevent unintended pregnancies from occurring in the first place, and advocate for social programs that help families in need.