By Soo Ji Min

Bianca (not her real name) is a 17-year-old pregnant woman who lives in Chicago and is already raising a 1-year-old child. She has made the difficult decision to get an abortion and cannot tell her mother because if she did, Bianca and her daughter would be thrown out onto the streets.

The state isn’t making things easier either. Recently, the injunction on the 1995 Illinois Parental Notice of Abortion Act was dissolved by the U.S. Court of Appeals thus requiring notification either by phone or face-to-face, to a person over 21 years of age who is a parent, grandparent, step-parent living in the household or the legal guardian of the pregnant youth. That means if Bianca -- and countless others like her under the age of 18 -- tried to access an abortion after 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, August 4, 2009, the abortion provider would be legally bound to give at least 48 hours notice to an adult family member.

While parental notification laws are intended to protect young women, they assume that all young women can safely involve their family in the decision to terminate a pregnancy. Ideally, young women would freely inform their parents or other trusted adults. And most do.

According to a study published in Family Planning Perspectives, 74 percent of 15-year-old women report that at least one of their parents knew about their decision to have an abortion. For 14-year-old young women, this percentage grows to 90 percent.

However, the government cannot mandate good family dynamics or strengthen a family’s ability to engage in effective and positive communication. Interestingly enough, parental notification laws mandate family involvement only after a young woman already has become pregnant.

Like Bianca, more than half of young women who do not involve a parent in their decision to seek an abortion cite fear of abuse or eviction. The American Medical Association (AMA) reports that some young women will go to extreme and unhealthy lengths to keep pregnancies secret, including running away, obtaining illegal abortions, or self-inducing abortions.

The AMA, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and many others have cited the risk to teens’ health in opposing these laws. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “mandating parental notification does not achieve the intended benefit of promoting family communication, but it does increase the risk of harm to the adolescent by delaying access to appropriate care.”

Requiring parental notification or consent can expose young women to these risks. Furthermore, research has shown that when a Texas parental notification law was implemented in 2000, the odds increased that a young women’s pregnancy would result in a second-trimester abortion. Although abortion is among the safest surgical procedures for women, risk of complications increase as the pregnancy progresses.

The Illinois law permits a young woman to seek a waiver by obtaining a court order. But there’s little proof that the state courts are prepared to handle the judicial bypass procedure, which mandates a 48-hour turnaround and absolute privacy. Additionally, young women who already face multiple barriers to accessing legal health care -- based on culture, language, religion, economic or immigrant status -- will encounter even greater obstacles if forced to navigate through the judicial bypass procedure.

Rather than continuing to restrict health options for adolescent women, we should focus on ensuring that all youth have access to the information and reproductive health care they need and deserve.

Medically accurate, age appropriate, comprehensive sexual health education, proven to reduce unsafe sexual behaviors, should be taught in all Illinois schools. All teachers in Illinois should receive sexual health education as part of their basic training. As considerable research has shown emergency contraception to be safe and effective, it should be made available without a prescription to all adolescents without delay.

These are solutions that will reduce the need for abortion without compromising the health of young women in Illinois, and are solutions that our policymakers, legislators and courts should support.
Min is the executive director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 8/09