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Legislative Memo: Oppose Amending the Public Health Law and the Family Court Act

The proposed legislation would create a legal requirement that parents of an unemancipated minor must provide consent or must be informed before the minor can receive an abortion.

While the legislation is intended to protect minors, it would in fact be harmful to them. It is well documented in public health studies and in court rulings that parental involvement laws are bad public health policy because they increase the risk that minors will suffer harm or abuse, avoid or delay seeking necessary care, and/or seek out more dangerous alternatives in order to avoid involving their parents.

It is almost always best for parents to be involved in a young person’s decisions about reproductive health care. But while parental involvement should be encouraged, it is most important that young people have access to the services they need to remain safe and healthy.

New York State has long been a leader in promoting reproductive health services for minors; and this important public health policy is facilitated by ensuring that minors can receive services without involving a parent – and that these services will remain confidential.

Currently, minor adolescents may receive confidential prenatal care, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections and abortion. These policies recognize the importance, from a public health perspective, of providing teens with unimpeded access to these critical services.

Despite this longstanding and effective public health policy, parental involvement bills requiring either notification of or consent from a parent before a minor may obtain an abortion have been repeatedly introduced in the New York State legislature.

Each year the legislature has rightly declined to enact them. It is neither appropriate nor practicable for the government to attempt to legislate family communication in the difficult circumstances of a minor’s pregnancy.

Parental involvement requirements are not only misguided, but dangerous. They would put some adolescents at heightened risk and hinder access to medical care, while doing nothing to improve family communication or lower overall abortion rates. The NYCLU urges the legislature to again reject the ill advised and harmful proposals offered in A.2357 and A.6242.

Parental Involvement Requirements are Bad Public Health Policy

Most adolescents voluntarily involve their parents in decisions regarding abortion. But, as the Supreme Court has recognized, requiring parental involvement can sometimes lead to harming teens, rather than helping them.

Minors often have good reasons to avoid involving their parents, such as the fear that a parent will interfere with their decision, or become abusive. Studies indicate these fears are well founded.

For example, in one study, 18 percent of teens who were required to involve their parents said their parents forced them to have an abortion when they found out about the pregnancy.

Fifty-eight percent of pregnant minors whose parents learned of the pregnancy against the minor’s will suffered harm – four times more frequently than occurred when the daughter told the parents herself.

Moreover, studies have clearly shown that many adolescents will avoid or delay seeking necessary reproductive and sexual health care if their confidentiality is compromised. In one recent study by the Journal of American Medicine, more than half of all sexually active teens visiting family planning clinics said they would stop or put off using services if their parents were notified that they were seeking birth control – but virtually all (99 percent) reported that they would continue having sex.

Parental involvement laws can lead minors (who typically seek abortion care a week later on average than do older women ) to further delay seeking care, increasing the risk of complications. The prospect of disclosure to parents can even lead teens to go to extreme measures to avoid parental notification, such as seeking self-induced or back-alley abortions, or running away from home.

For these reasons, adolescent health providers and public health experts support preserving confidentiality for teens seeking reproductive and sexual health care, including abortion.

Finally, the constitutionally required judicial bypass included in these bills also results in delays that harm teens. Under the Constitution a judicial waiver from parental notification rules must be granted when a minor is sufficiently mature to make medical decisions, and when an abortion is in the minor’s best interests.

The vast majority of such petitions are granted. Indeed, there is no evidence that parental involvement laws that have been enacted in other states have decreased the number of teen abortions (or abortions in general).

The only result is emotional trauma for teens, and an increase in later abortions. The state bears the cost of the considerable judicial resources that must be expended in resolving what is more appropriately treated as a personal medical decision between a young woman, her health care provider, and ideally any other trusted adult she chooses to confide in.

The Provisions under Consideration Contain Numerous Unconstitutional Flaws

In addition to the policy concerns outlined above, these specific proposals contain numerous flaws that rise to the level of serious constitutional violations. Federal courts have been particularly stringent on the imposition of parental involvement requirements. The NYCLU believes that these flaws would render either of these provisions unenforceable under existing law, and would subject the state to legal liability.

New York State public health policy has always been focused on improving, not limiting, minors’ access to medical care. Requiring parental involvement subverts this policy. The goal of safe and effective care for minors can best be achieved not through legal mandates, but through increased education, prevention, and access to services.

The only purpose served by parental consent and notifications requirements is the restriction of access to a safe and legal abortion. The price of enforcing such restrictions is the emotional and even the physical well-being of young women. This is too high a price to pay.

Any imposition of a forced parental involvement is poor public health policy that will come at a substantial cost to both adolescents and the state. The NYCLU strongly opposes A.2357 and A.6242.

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