California Considers Parents' Right to Know

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — This November, for the first time since Roe v. Wade, California voters will have a direct impact on the future of their state's abortion policy.

The Parents’ Right to Know and Child Protection Initiative, which will go before voters in a special election this fall, is set to restore some measure of parental rights to more than 10% of the nation's parents.

Catherine Short, 46, one of the co-authors of the initiative and a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, believes the initiative will renew vital communication between adolescents and their parents.

“The initiative is a wake-up call to parents,” Short said. “It's a very busy world out there. It's a world that tends to separate kids from parents. They get out of touch. We also know from other states with similar laws that there is a drop in both teenage pregnancy and teenage abortion when a parental involvement law is passed.”

In fact, abortions could decrease by up to 25% in California, the state's Legislative Analyst's Office estimated. But it said the drop could be due to minors crossing state lines to obtain an abortion in a state where there is no parental involvement law.

The initiative would amend the California Constitution by prohibiting abortions performed on a minor until 48 hours after a physician notifies her parent or legal guardian — in writing — of her decision to have an abortion. The notification would not be required in cases of medical emergency. Currently, 33 states have some form of a parental involvement law governing a minor's decision to have an abortion.

If the initiative passes, California would be the only state on the West Coast with a parental involvement law. Oregon and Washington, along with New York, Hawaii, Connecticut and Vermont, have no parental involvement laws.

On Aug. 4, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops filed a friend of the court brief in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold New Hampshire's parental notification law.

Short added that the initiative would help protect teenage girls from sexual predators. Short's co-author, Teresa Stanton Collett, testified in Congress during the summer of 2004 in support of the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act.

Collett said that “in a study of over 46,000 pregnancies by school-age girls in California, researchers found that ‘71%, or over 33,000, were fathered by adult post-high-school men whose mean age was 22.6 years.’ Other studies have found that most teenage pregnancies are the result of predatory practices by men who are substantially older.”

Collett further stated in her testimony that “a number of young girls who obtained abortions without their parents’ knowledge were encouraged to do so by a sexual partner who could be charged with statutory rape. … Parental notification laws insure that parents have the opportunity to protect their daughters from those who would victimize their daughters further.”

Albin Rhomberg, spokesman for California's parental notification campaign, believes the initiative will also shield teens from unscrupulous abortion providers.

“The initiative is a way to prevent the abortion industry from providing clandestine abortions to minors without parents’ knowledge,” he said. “Parents can counsel their children and protect them from a commercial industry. It's parents who pick up the pieces after a daughter's abortion, not Planned Parenthood.”

Rhomberg added that some abortion businesses are guilty of not reporting minors’ older boyfriends for statutory rape, an assertion made by Collett in her testimony before Congress.

“Abortion providers are reluctant to report information indicating a minor is the victim of statutory rape,” Collett said. “Failure to report may result in the minor returning to an abusive relationship.”

High Poll Numbers

According to Rhomberg, voters have responded favorably to the initiative.

“Of all the initiatives on the ballot for November, it's the most popular,” he said. “Polls show it at about 75%. It should pass very comfortably. … Some parents want to pass the initiative so they can supervise their teen's abortion. They know an abortion is dangerous and they recognize the immaturity of minors.”

Although the California Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of California, did not get involved in signature-gathering for the initiative, Carol Hogan, the organization's communications director, said the “bishops will be taking a stand for the initiative.”

Repeated calls to Planned Parenthood were not returned. However, in a May 18 Los Angeles Times article, Mary-Jane Wagle, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, said abortion rights advocates would fight the measure.

“It puts a barrier between teens and their access to safe, good medical care,” Wagle said. “I have three daughters, and the last thing I want is for the government to force them to talk to me if they don't feel they can. I'm afraid that it would make them do something that would be dangerous for them.”

Critics of the bill contend that forcing a minor to notify her parents of her pregnancy might lead her to desperate acts such as an illegal abortion or even suicide.

Rhomberg believes such cases would be in the minority.

“I can show grisly pictures of what seat belts have done to a person when a car is on fire and the person can't undo the seat belt,” he said. “Airbags have killed hundreds of children. Should we get rid of all airbags and seat belts because of rare cases where they have a bad effect? You don't make public policy on bizarre or isolated cases but on what's the greater good.”

A parental consent law was passed in California in 1987 and upheld by the California Supreme Court in 1996. However, a year later after two justices retired, the court took the unusual action of reconsidering its vote and struck down the law as unconstitutional.

Short said that organizers of this effort decided to make this a parental notification initiative instead of a parental consent one in order “to make it as politically palatable and effective as possible.”

Said Short, “In practice, there's not much difference between the effects of a parental notification law and a parental consent law. We went with one that doesn't allow Planned Parenthood to make the initiative look unreasonable.”

Moreover, “our timing is particularly fortuitous,” she said. “After the 2004 elections, there's been a lot of talk by Democrats to not alienate middle America with the abortion issue.”

Martin Mazloom is based in Los Angeles.