Published on Thursday, May 5, 2005 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
Helping Pregnant Teens: Federal Crime?
by Sheryl McCarthy
In February, Thea Textor, a volunteer with the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund, got a phone call from a desperate 16-year-old girl and her 21-year-old brother.
The girl was pregnant and wanted an abortion but needed help paying for it. Her brother wanted to help his sister.
Complicating their situation was that Massachusetts has a parental notification law for minors seeking abortions. But the siblings didn't want to tell their parents about the pregnancy, the brother said, "because her dad would kill her if he knew."
So, like many other Massachusetts girls who don't want to tell their parents or get a waiver from a judge, the siblings crossed the state line into New Hampshire, where the girl had her abortion.
"I was impressed that someone would take on that responsibility," Textor said of the brother. "He seemed like he really cared about his sister."
But a federal law that's making its way through Congress would turn the brother's actions into a crime. The Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act would make it a criminal offense, subject to a fine and a one-year prison sentence, for an adult who's not a minor's parent to accompany her to another state to avoid her own state's more restrictive abortion laws. It would also penalize doctors who perform abortions without notifying the girl's parents. The law has passed in the House and is expected to pass in the Senate.
Parental notification laws, in effect in all but 18 states, are burdensome enough. For girls who, for all sorts of reasons, feel they can't confide in their parents, the laws create a daunting barrier for legal abortions. Pregnant girls need calm and level-headed counsel, which their parents, sadly, may not be able to give them. So they may turn to other relatives or adult friends for help.
This law, which is really just an insidious ploy to make abortion as inaccessible as possible, would close off even that possibility. Its supporters - religious conservatives, anti-abortion activists, many of the Republicans in Congress and President George W. Bush himself - have been unable to get the hold-out 18 states, New York among them, to pass parental consent or notification laws. So they're trying to do an end-run around them with this one. Its critics call it the "Teen Endangerment Act."
"This makes grandma a criminal," says Joann Smith, the head of Planned Parenthood of Nassau County.
"Girls find an adult they can talk to - and isn't that what we want? - and now they're going to make that person a criminal, when they're trying to do right by the young person in their lives. ... It's setting these kids up to not tell anybody about what's happening."
The law will harm girls for whom the only adult source of support is not a parent - forcing them to seek illegal abortions or to continue pregnancies they don't want.
The Rev. Lois Powell understands the danger. In the 1990s she pastored a church in Florida, the site of a current controversy over teens and abortion, and counseled women who came to the local women's health center.
Some came from rural areas in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, where legal abortions weren't available. She once counseled a 16-year-old girl from a very religious, anti-abortion Georgia family, who came to Florida with her older sister.
"This young woman had her whole life ahead of her," Rev. Powell said. "She was looking forward to going to college. She was not prepared to be a mother. She didn't want to be a mother. Nor did she want to bring this child into the world to give it up for adoption."
After counseling, the girl went ahead with the abortion. Under the proposed law, her sister would be considered a criminal.
Rev. Powell says she worries about the girls she will see in the future, who may not have an older sister to help them. As a pastor, she'll feel it's her duty to accompany them, she said. Which will make her a criminal, too.
© 2005 Newsday, Inc.