S 754, H 893

Sponsored by Senator Michael Barrett and Representative David Linsky

 

Parental consent laws jeopardize the health and well-being of minors

Compared to most states in New England, Massachusetts has a very restrictive parental consent law.  Under state law, young people in Massachusetts under the age of 18 seeking an abortion must obtain consent from a parent or go through a court process to obtain authorization from a judge. 

Proponents of parental consent laws argue that such laws promote family communication.  While a large majority of young women do involve their parents in their decision to have an abortion, most would do so regardless of whether their state has parental involvement requirement. Healthy family communication is essential, but government cannot mandate it.  Some young women simply cannot discuss their pregnancy with their parents for a variety of reasons: they may live in situations where there is physical violence or emotional abuse; their pregnancies may be the result of incest; or they may fear being kicked out of the house.

The state’s mandate ignores these realities and interferes with a young woman’s ability to make a personal decision that is best for her health and well-being.  In fact, this complicated mandate only creates more hardship and risk to a young woman’s physical and emotional health, including an increased threat of violence in the home, coercion to continue a pregnancy, and medical complications associated with delayed medical care. 

The nation’s leading medical organizations warn that mandatory parental involvement laws reduce safety, not abortion rates, and can harm young women:

  • American Medical Association: “Because the need for privacy may be compelling, minors . . . may run away from home, obtain a “back alley” abortion, or resort to self-induced abortion.  The desire to maintain secrecy has been one of the leading reasons for illegal abortion deaths since…1973.”
  • American Academy of Pediatrics: “Legislation mandating parental involvement 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 medical care…Minors should not be compelled or required to involve their parents in their decisions to obtain abortions, although they should be encouraged to discuss their pregnancies with their parents and other responsible adults.”

In states immediately surrounding Massachusetts, such as New York and Vermont, there is no age of consent for abortion.  In others, such as Connecticut, the age of consent is 16.  As a result, young women from Massachusetts can cross state lines without telling anyone where they are going to obtain an abortion performed by a doctor that they’ve never met.  In fact, a 2009 analysis in Massachusetts found that the rate of minors seeking out-of-state abortion care rose by a striking 300% after the parental consent law was adopted in 1986, while the in-state teen abortion rate decreased by a much smaller proportion. Massachusetts’ onerous parental consent law puts greater physical and emotional burdens on the state’s young women when they are already dealing with a complex, difficult situation.

The judicial bypass process forces young women to navigate and overcome unnecessary hurdles in order to make a decision they already know is best for them.

For a young woman, pursuing a judicial order through the courts can be intimidating, stressful and at times logistically impossible.  Specifically, she must attend hearings scheduled during school hours, find transportation while maintaining confidentiality, and present her case before a judge.  Since the parental consent law was passed in 1986, there have been virtually no court denials in Massachusetts; judges ultimately found in all but two of approximately 20,000 cases that the young woman was mature enough to consent or agreed with the young woman that ending her pregnancy was in her best interests.  Whereas the court proceedings have not altered the course for most of these young women, their very requirement can unnecessarily cause delays of a week or more, increasing her health risks and the cost of medical care, while adding another costly and time-consuming responsibility to an already over-burdened court system.

The Solution: Preventing teen pregnancy and facilitating safe and legal access to healthcare

Many Massachusetts laws recognize the importance of timely access to medical care and social services for young people.  That’s why people under the age of 18 can consent to prenatal care, childbirth, and maternity services; treatment for sexually transmitted infections and substance abuse; mental health services; medical care for their child; and adopting their spouse's child.  It’s time to stop singling out abortion and imposing a higher standard to access certain health care. 

An Act to Improve Health Care for Young Women, sponsored by Senator Michael Barrett and Representative David Linsky, would take meaningful steps to ensure young women have access to the health care they need by lowering the age to obtain parental consent or a court order from 18 to 16.  Instead of endangering the health and well-being of a young woman, this bill would help her access the support, guidance, and timely access to medical care she needs to make a decision about her pregnancy.