Columns 2003

Abortion laws can open Pandora’s box

I find that abortion is one of those topics, like religion and politics, which is best left out of lunchtime conversations unless you are very sure about the opinion of the other people at the table.  From my very unscientific observations, I find that the majority of women I know question whether they could personally have an abortion but they are pretty firm that they don’t feel they should tell other women what to do.

The current lawsuit working its way through the state court system isn’t about a women’s right to an abortion per se. It’s about whether or not a female under 16 should have to have parental permission to have one.  It’s also about whether that same child should have to go in front of a judge to prove she is capable of making that decision without input from her parents if, for a variety of reasons, she chooses not to include them in the decision.

A lot of rhetoric about family values gets thrown around in this debate.  The implication is that if you oppose this law, you clearly have none.  On the surface, it can very much look that way. 

Our legislature has crafted and passed a law with the stated purpose of protecting the family and a mother and father’s right to raise their children and be involved in important decisions in their lives.  This is clearly a laudable goal and hardly one that most would argue against.  The problem is, as I see it, that when you start putting these high ideals into poorly crafted laws, you open doors best left closed.

For instance, if a parent can refuse to allow a minor child to have an abortion, if a parent has the right to dictate the reproductive health of a minor child, does that parent then also have the right to require the child to have an abortion if they do not want their daughter to have a baby? It’s a scary question. and one that has never been really answered by the crafters of this law. But it seems obvious to me, despite a decided lack of legal training, that once someone has power over your reproductive life, it might be hard to draw a line in the sand and say “But only this much”. 

The law, as currently written, says that a child who does not have parental approval for an abortion must go in front of a judge and prove she is mature enough to make this decision on her own and has compelling reasons to exclude her parents from the decision.  Yet I don’t see anywhere in the law where this child would have to go in front of a judge to prove she was mature enough to have a baby if her decision was to carry to term without parental approval.

An abortion is, without a doubt, an emotionally difficult, if not traumatizing, event in any woman’s life.  But it pales besides the emotional issues faced by a 14 year old with a baby to raise – a baby that will need that child to be it’s mother and provide maturity, guidance and stability as well as basic safety and physical care.  I don’t know many 14 year olds capable of doing that.

I do, however, know a lot of 14 year olds who have babies who are totally incapable of providing for even a tenth of the baby’s needs.  And unfortunately, since the world is not populated by Ward and June Cleaver clones, there is no guarantee that the child’s parents are going to be willing or able to help raise their grandchild – especially if they are already angry or humiliated by the whole event.

It seems to me that if we claim society has a vital interest in knowing if a child is mature enough to have a baby, we have an equally compelling reason to demand that any pregnant minor show they have the maturity to carry that pregnancy to term. Which of course leads to the unsettling question of whether or not the state could then force a child to have an abortion if she could not prove adequate maturity. Or could the court force that child to give up her baby for adoption whether she wanted to or not?

Crafting a law to achieve a legitimate aim of society is why we have legislatures.  In this case, however, the law crafted is poorly written and opens a Pandora’s box of possibilities that should scare any family oriented person to death.