Parental Notification Laws: What’s the Harm?

parent teen communicationIf, 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.” Continue reading

A Conversation with Faye Wattleton: Part 1, Historical Perspectives

Faye Wattleton reflects on her career in the family-planning movement. Image: Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona, 1981

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. At 34 years old, she was not only the youngest and the first African American to head PPFA, but was also the first woman since Margaret Sanger to hold that position. She had already been executive director of the affiliate in Dayton, Ohio, for seven years, and is still PPFA’s longest-serving president.

Ms. Wattleton received her nursing degree from Ohio State University in 1964, and a master’s degree in maternal and infant care, with certification as a nurse midwife, from Columbia University in 1967. Working in obstetrics, she saw a wider world than she had known and was exposed to the choices women in other circumstances needed to make. She saw the results of illegal abortions when women were desperate to end unwanted pregnancies, and saw the judgmental attitudes of many of the doctors and nurses who treated them. These experiences, along with her religious upbringing by a strong mother who was a preacher in the Church of God, led her to a career in the movement for reproductive rights.


“What is different today is that the element of violence is much less of a factor in the struggle” for abortion rights.


Ms. Wattleton was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this first installment, she speaks about the battle for women’s reproductive rights as it has evolved over time.

In the years since Roe, states have been passing more and more restrictive laws, such as Arizona’s strict 20-week cutoff for abortions, and mischaracterizing some birth control methods as abortifacients. I asked if it had been difficult to watch the worsening attacks against reproductive rights since she left Planned Parenthood — and was surprised when Ms. Wattleton said she does not think the struggle for reproductive rights has gotten more difficult. In some ways, she said, things have gotten better. Continue reading