Parent-notice rule raises pitch of abortion law fight


Del. Lawrence A. LaMotte, father of two daughters, says the new abortion law up for referendum next month protects girls' health as well as parents' rights when a minor seeks an abortion.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, mother of three and a leader in the campaign for the law's defeat, says the statute shuts out parents, puts girls in jeopardy and leaves the abortion decision up to the doctor, who stands to profit from the procedure.

Amid all the arguments over the abortion law that goes before voters Nov. 3, one of the hottest centers on the issue of adolescents and their parents: When should a mother or father be told that a daughter is seeking an abortion? And under what circumstances can a parent be kept out of the process?

It's an issue that's been argued around the country.

Some states require not only that parents be notified but that they consent before a girl may have an abortion. Some states allow a girl who insists she cannot tell her parents she is pregnant to petition a judge, who decides if she may have an abortion.

Maryland has had no enforceable parental-notice requirement for nearly 10 years, since U.S. Supreme Court rulings rendered the old state law unconstitutional.

Mr. LaMotte said that, contrary to what opponents imply, the new abortion statute will once again make parental notice a requirement. Ms. Mathewes-Green, spokeswoman of the Vote kNOw Coalition, said she'd rather have no law than one that leaves the abortion decision not to parents but to doctors.

The Maryland abortion law on referendum states that "a physician may not perform an abortion on an unmarried minor unless the physician first gives notice to a parent or guardian of the minor."

Then it goes on to list exceptions to the rule: A doctor need not tell a parent if the doctor believes that the girl might incur emotional or physical abuse. And a doctor can perform the abortion without notice if the girl is "mature" or "notification would not be in the best interest of the minor" -- exceptions dictated by the Supreme Court in a 1983 ruling.

Without that language, Mr. LaMotte said, the law would not pass a court challenge.

At a news conference sponsored by Maryland for Choice yesterday, Mr. LaMotte said the General Assembly tried to balance a variety of interests -- the rights of parents, the safety of girls, Supreme Court requirements -- when it passed the abortion law in 1991.

"I am proud we were able to reach a reasonable compromise," said Mr. LaMotte, a Baltimore County Democrat and one of the law's sponsors.

He added that the law's opponents, led by the Vote kNOw Coalition, "is using scare tactics and half-truths to portray this notification clause as a law that will liberalize current practice. Just the opposite is true."

Also at the news conference, Dr. Alain Joffe, head of adolescent medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said he has counseled 50 to 100 pregnant girls and has never had a case in which parents weren't involved. Even frightened girls, he said, can be counseled and convinced to tell their mother or father, he added.

"The vast majority of adolescents tell one or both of their parents," Dr. Joffe said. If the girls don't, the doctors make it their duty, he said. "We do this, even though it takes considerable time, not because it is required by law but because we believe it constitutes good health care."

But the Vote kNOw Coalition says the parental-notice provision is so riddled with loopholes that it is meaningless. The group is sponsoring television commercials that highlight the exceptions to the requirement.

Ms. Mathewes-Green, the Vote kNOw spokeswoman, said, "The idea should be to give girls the opportunity to go to their parents, not to make it easy not to go to [their] parents. The thing we're after is getting parents involved. This is crafted not to involve parents."

Ms. Mathewes-Green said the parental-notice provision is evidence that abortion-rights activists have crossed "a fine line from being pro-choice to being pro-abortion. They want anything that makes it quicker and slicker and easier to achieve."

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