She wants to keep her baby

Fri 14 Apr 2006 11:19 AM

I managed to do a good bit of writing in Budapest. I wrote this in a cafe just off Batthyany Square. In a bit of synchronicity, Papa don't preach was playing on the radio.

Recently, a state or two has banned abortion so as to give the newer, more conservative Supreme Court a chance to overturn Roe v. Wade. In years past, however, anti-abortion groups advocated restrictions on abortion as a proxy for an outright ban. Among these restrictions are parental notification and consent laws. These require the parents of pregnant, underage girls to be involved in their girls' decisions to get an abortion. A report in the NY Times claims that these laws have not had the intended effect of curtailing abortions. In some cases, clinic workers report parents pressuring reluctant teens to abort their pregnancies.

This got me thinking about the ethical rationale for parental notification or consent laws. Setting the political motivation aside and supposing that an adult woman has the right to choose, I suppose that the reasoning must be something like this: Minors do not have autonomy over their own medical decision-making. Parents make medical decisions for infants and small children, who cannot decide what happens to their own bodies. The presumption that the law should require parental involvement in a teen's abortion presumes that teens, like smaller kids, do not get to decide what happens to their own bodies.

If the situation of a teen is parallel to the situation of a younger child, then parental notification and consent are really not strong enough. The abortion ought to be at the parent's discretion. If parents want their pregnant teen to have an abortion, they can make the decision on her behalf-- even if she wants to keep the baby. Papa can do more than preach.

I asked Bonnie about this, since she is an expert on reproductive ethics. Evidently the question of parental consent does not get as much play as the bigger question of whether abortion is permissible. She suggested that teens have a sort of limited autonomy such that one could not perform an invasive procedure on them without their permission; also, that performing an abortion on someone who did not want one would probably cause tremendous psychological harm.

Consider these in turn:

(1) It is impermissible to force a teen to have an invasive medical procedure.

The idea is that there is asymmetry between having and not having an abortion. A teen can override her parents' decision that she have an abortion, but not their decision that she carry the baby to term. This seems weak to me. Chemical abortion is possible, so abortion need not be invasive. And carrying the baby to term involves a much greater change to the teen's body than aborting early.

(2) Forcing someone to have an abortion would do so much psychological harm that the parents' right is overridden.

Weighing rights against harms is a tricky thing, but I can imagine cases in which the harm would be large enough. Yet there may be other cases in which the teen does not want an abortion but would not be terribly traumatized if she were to have one. I recall the kids from 6th grade who had braces because their parents decided they should have braces; some of them hated having braces, but their parents still had the right to make them get braces. I do not want to press the analogy too hard, but it leads me to think that there are certainly cases in which a teen is pressured to have an abortion that she does not want without mind-breaking psychological strain.

So it seems to me that the ethical considerations which could motivate parental consent laws would justify prima facie parental power to compel abortion. Anti-abortion activists who have used parental consent as a maneuver in the broader battle about abortion would probably disagree, but that only means that the issue's political valence is hypocritical posturing.


from: Ron

Fri 14 Apr 2006 01:50 PM

And adding to your response to #1: Carrying a fetus to term is clearly significantly more risky to the potential mother's health/life than an early abortion.