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Abortion bill's reality vs. rhetoric


BOSTON - I won my merit badge in Raising a Teenager. I still wear this small and rather tattered patch on my maternal sleeve.

So I get it. I understand the fear that your 15-year-old is in trouble and you're out of the loop. I understand the anger that someone else is with your 17-year-old in a crisis and you don't even know about it.

This is why the laws requiring parental notification and consent have fared so much better than anything else on the anti-abortion wish list. No one thinks a teenage girl should go through the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy or the decision about abortion without a caring parent.

This is also the simple - and simplistic - sales pitch for the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act passed by the House. It would make it a crime for any adult other than a parent to accompany a minor across a state line to avoid parental involvement laws.

To put it simply, any accompanying adult - aunt, grandmother, older sister - would be subject to prison.

Beyond that, any doctor performing abortions would have to obey the laws of the girl's home state as well as the state where he or she practices medicine. Those who didn't would face a year in jail.

Finally, as a footnote, there is a federally mandated 24-hour waiting period, even if the girl has crossed state lines with her parent.

Some version of this is likely to pass the Senate, where it is on Bill Frist's dance card. It's framed as a reasonable piece of common ground in the "values" debate. Indeed, as William L. Clay, a liberal Democratic congressman from Missouri, said when he switched his vote to support passage, "It's too difficult for me to explain to the average constituent why I voted against notifying a parent that a minor child is about to get an abortion."

The law is framed as a matter of "parents' rights." The bill's advocates like to say that if you need parental consent to get an aspirin in school, you should need it for an abortion. But, alas, you don't need parental consent to have sex. That, I assure you, would pass overwhelmingly. Nor do you need parental consent to continue a pregnancy.

"It goes without saying, parents should have direct and immediate say over their child seeking an abortion," says Lanier Swann of Concerned Women for America. But what if the parent wanted an abortion and the daughter said no? Would the parent still warrant an "immediate say"?

"The bill," insisted Mr. Clay, "simply says that a parent has a right to know if their child is having surgery." May I remind him there is no right to know when their daughter is in the delivery room? Nor does any law give a parent the right to decide whether her daughter keeps the baby or puts it up for adoption.

The pro-family rhetoric covers a strategy that puts more and more hurdles in front of young, pregnant, vulnerable teenagers. After all, they make such an easy target. As I write, the state of Florida has blocked a pregnant, 13-year-old girl who lives in a shelter from getting an abortion, on the grounds that she is too young and immature to make the decision for herself. The solution is to become a young and immature mother.

Life as the parent of a teenager would be much easier if anatomy were in sync with autonomy. It would be easier if we could get the age of reproduction to mesh with the age of reason.

Parents do want to know. We want to be involved in our kids' lives. So we push and pull our mutual way through adolescence. But we can't succeed on that journey by closing down state lines. It only works when we manage to keep the family conversation lines open.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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