WASHINGTON — A new bill introduced in Congress aims to give a boost to parental rights in the formation of their children. The legislation, introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., would require federally funded health clinics to notify the parents of any minors seeking contraception at least five days before dispensing the contraception.
The legislation, dubbed the Parents Right to Know Act, would recognize at least a formal role by parents in the lives of their teen-agers. For years, courts have put the rights of minors over parents.
“As a practicing family physician, and as a member of Congress, I have seen first-hand the painful consequences associated with our federal policy that allows children to make potentially life-changing reproduction decisions without their parents’ knowledge,” Coburn said. “This government-sanctioned veil of secrecy is contributing to a growing sexually transmitted disease epidemic and encourages unintended teen pregnancies and abortions. Few government policies are more irrational or hostile to the vital relationship between a parent and child.”
Opponents of the legislation say that it could discourage teens from seeking “reproductive health care services” and could lead to more sexually transmitted diseases and “unwanted” pregnancies.
One such opponent, Karen Pearl, interim president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, wrote in her blog on the organization's website that the legislation would amount to having teen-agers “punished for having sex.”
She asked, “If your son or daughter felt they could not tell you about their decision to have sex — for whatever reason — wouldn't you feel better knowing that your teens could get the health care they need?”
For Coburn, however, this argument flies in the face of common sense.
“Parental involvement can help delay or stop risky sexual behavior among our children,” he said. “We owe it to our children to be involved in their lives and provide them with the best medical advice possible.”
Added Akin, “It is inconceivable that children can walk into a Title X clinic and be administered a potentially life-threatening birth control medication without their parents’ knowledge. Yet, frequently, when children walk into the local mall to get their ears pierced, parental permission is required.”
Christopher Slattery, founder and president of Expectant Mother Care, which operates 15 crisis pregnancy centers in the New York City area, said that notification would give “good parents” the chance to discourage sex outside of marriage.
However, he added that it won't necessarily discourage teens from accessing contraception, especially in areas like New York City, where parents often encourage or condone the use of condoms by their teen-agers.
Though the Parents Right to Know Act would not give parents the right to block their children from receiving contraception, it is a step in the right direction, according to supporters of the legislation.
“For a generation and a half, the courts have been extolling the rights of minors and restricting the rights of parents,” said Stephen Krason, president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and professor of political science and legal studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville. “What you're seeing here is an attempt to try to restore some parental role.”
Mike O'dea, founder and executive director of the Christus Medicus Foundation in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., an organization that promotes authentic Catholic healthcare, said that the legislation could reopen the debate on this subject, a debate that he said has been going on for more than 20 years with very little success for parental rights.
“For years now, the courts have been restricting parents’ access to their children's medical information when it comes to abortion and contraception,” O'dea said. “What this legislation will do is reopen the debate on parental notification for all government-funded health clinics, not just federal.”
Culture at Odds
Restoring the rights of parents is exactly what Coburn has in mind.
“No federal bureaucrat or Title X official should have the authority to usurp a parent's role in an area of their child's life, in which one bad decision can have severe and long-lasting emotional and physical consequences,” he said. “I urge my colleagues to support this legislation that will protect the vital relationship between a parent and child.”
Title X of the Public Health Service Act passed in 1970 is the only federal program devoted entirely to family planning and reproductive health care. It supports roughly 4,600 clinics and has a budget of $288 million for the 2005 fiscal year.
The program, which is administered within the Office of Population Affairs, was designed primarily to provide access to and information about contraception. Its creation came shortly after the Supreme Court's 1965 ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned a Connecticut law criminalizing the use of contraceptives, claiming the law violated the right to marital privacy.
Subsequent court rulings and Title X have flown in the face of Catholic teaching on contraception, a doctrinal stance reiterated by Pope Paul VI in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, and have created a culture increasingly at odds with Catholic teaching.
The Parents Right to Know Act will begin the process of bringing back the “right of conscience” to health care services, O'dea said. “Legislation like this is necessary to give us the freedom to have faith-based health care in this country.”
Eduardo Llull is based in New York City.