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Senate Bill Would Criminalize Helping Minors Seek Abortions

by Jessica Azulay

Abortion rights groups fear a bill that would make it illegal for adults to help teenage girls obtain abortions by accompanying them across some state lines, if the adult is not the girl's parent.

June 6, 2004 – This week the US Senate Judiciary Committee began hearing testimony on the Child Custody Protection Act, which would make it a criminal offense to travel with a minor across state boarders in order to help them get around abortion parental consent or notification laws.

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Women’s and civil rights groups strongly oppose the Act, which they have dubbed the "Teen Endangerment Act," and argue that if made into law, the bill would impose undue restrictions on girls’ right to legal and safe abortions, endanger teenagers’ health, and punish adults for helping "young women in need."

"This dangerous piece of legislation, if enacted, would seriously threaten the health and welfare of the young women of America," said Laura W. Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a press statement. "At a time when they need support and assistance the most, this measure seeks to punish teenagers. Those adults that seek to help them should not be made into criminals."

In contrast, anti-abortion organizations lobbying in support of the Act say it will help protect the health of minors and prevent adults who are not a woman’s legal guardian from circumventing "parents’ rights."

Twenty-four states have laws that require young women to either notify or gain consent from one or both parents before obtaining an abortion, according the Center for Reproductive Rights, an organization founded in response to the US Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion. The Child Custody Protection Act (S. 851 / H.R.1755) would make it a federal crime for an adult, other than a parent, to knowingly bring a minor across state lines in order to obtain access to an abortion, unless the minor has complied with the parental involvement laws in her home state.

Abortion rights groups have long railed against such parental consent and notification laws, accusing their backers of attempting to legislate parent-child relationships. They point to studies showing that even in states without laws mandating that children inform their parents, the overwhelming majority of teenagers do involve one or both parents in a decision to have an abortion.

The ACLU argues that in the relatively rare cases that minors do not inform their parents about obtaining an abortion, there is generally a "valid reason." For instance, they cite an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report that reads, "One third of minors who do not inform parents already have experienced family violence and fear it will recur." The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 57,000 pediatricians committed to the attainment of optimal physical, mental, and social health and well being for all infants, children, adolescents, and young adults.

The AAP document, entitled "The Adolescent’s Right to Confidential Care When Considering Abortion," is a survey of the existing data relevant to parental involvement in teenagers’ decisions regarding reproductive health care. It also states that "research on abusive and dysfunctional families shows that violence is at its worst during a family member’s pregnancy" and based on the available information concludes that "although parental involvement in minors’ abortion decisions may be helpful in many cases, in others it may be punitive, coercive, or abusive."

Pro-choice groups say that in almost all cases where a minor does not inform her parent of a decision to obtain an abortion, she will involve another adult, such as grandparents, siblings, or other extended family members; clergy, teachers, social workers, or other counselors; and supportive friends, in her decision and someone other than a parent will accompany her to the abortion clinic.

"[The Child Custody Protection Act] harms young women by its failure to recognize the importance of other family members and trusted adults in a young woman's life," writes the Center for Reproductive Rights in a briefing paper. "[The Act] would force young women to choose between not receiving assistance from these supportive adults in traveling across state lines for an abortion or risk exposing those adults to criminal liabilities, including jail time and fines."

Adults who help minors travel to another state to obtain an abortion in violation of the Act could be imprisoned and/or face a fine of up to $100,000, reports the Center for Reproductive Rights. The bill also allows the parents of the minor to sue an adult who assists her in obtaining health care across state borders, and potentially makes health professionals criminally liable if they provide an abortion to a minor who is accompanied by an adult in violation of the Act. Though the bill contains a narrow provision making an exception to the law when a woman’s life is endangered, the exception is not applicable to instances when her health is in danger.

The National Right to Life Committee, an organization founded in response to the US Supreme Court decision to legalize abortions nationwide, supports the legislation. In its own briefing paper on the topic, the organization says that allowing people to bypass parental notification and consent laws endangers the health of pregnant minors and makes it easier for older men to force their teenage partners to obtain an abortion in order to cover op evidence of statutory rape.

"The taking of an underage girl out of state for an abortion by someone who may have no knowledge of her prior medical or psychological history poses many dangers which could be avoided through involvement of her parents," writes the Committee. "Once the girl returns home, she may suffer physical complications from the abortion. If the parents are aware that their daughter has had an abortion, their knowledge may prove key to ensuring that the young girl receives treatment in a timely fashion with the onset of symptoms."

But Nancy Northup, President of the Center for Reproductive Rights said in a press statement: "This bill is not about protecting minors -- its purpose is to make it more difficult for minors to obtain abortions by threatening to punish trusted adults to whom they turn for help. Those who feel they cannot involve their parents will go to any lengths to avoid doing so. As a result of [the Child Custody Protection Act], some will be forced to travel to a distant clinic alone, seek risky alternatives, or carry unwanted pregnancies to term."

The AAP reports: "The percentages of minors who inform parents about their intent to have abortions are essentially the same in states with and without notification laws. In states with such laws, adolescents who are not willing to inform parents use judicial bypass mechanisms, go out of state to obtain services, obtain clandestine care, or delay care."

Groups opposing the Act criticize the legislation for making caring adults into criminals, and say it will unconstitutionally make it more dangerous for women to exercise their right to reproductive choice. According to the ACLU, "The Constitution prohibits the government from attempting to deter a constitutionally protected activity by increasing the danger of engaging in that activity."

"Knowing that anyone who helps them obtain an out-of-state abortion would risk arrest and imprisonment, many young women would be forced by this legislation to travel alone across state lines," said the ACLU in a press statement. "Some abortions involve surgical procedures that may not permit a young woman to drive home, often over long distances, by herself... Clearly, it is in the best interests of young women for caring, responsible adults to accompany them to an abortion provider and to escort them home after the surgery."

For more information see:

American Academy of Pediatrics "The Adolescent’s Right to Confidential Care When Considering Abortion"

American Civil Liberties Union "The ACLU Interested Persons Memo Opposing the Teen Endangerment Act (S.851/H.R.1755)"

Center for Reproductive Rights "The Child Custody Protection Act (CCPA): Harming Young Women Who Seek Abortions

National Right to Life Committee "Why We Need the Child Custody Protection Act"

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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