Parental notification reconsidered — and rejected — by the father of a daughter

A friend, noting my past opposition to laws that would require teen girls to notify their parents before having an abortion, asked if my views had changed since Heloise was born. He’s not the only person to assume that becoming a father to a daughter would shift my views. And his assumption was that I would want my daughter to be forced to tell me (or her mother) if she became pregnant and wanted to terminate that pregnancy.

I gave him a one-word answer: no.

I’ve been pro-choice for almost all of my life, save for a brief period (from 2000-2004) during which I flirted with the “consistent life ethic”. When I was under the influence of the Mennonites, with whom I worshipped for a few years, my pacifism became so strong that it included opposition to abortion as well as to capital punishment, war, and factory farming. What seemed congruent with the spirit of Jesus, however, was really just a longing for a kind of perfect consistency. And my opposition to legalized abortion foundered on the rocks of hard reality.

When one of the 16 year-olds in my youth group came to me for help with an unintended pregnancy, I realized that in my gut, I had never for a moment stopped believing in a woman’s sovereignty over her own flesh. I helped pay (quietly) for that young woman’s abortion. And her parents, whom I knew well, were never told. My youth grouper wasn’t ready to have that conversation; all I could do was offer to be present when she told them. She was adamant that she couldn’t tell them (for a while, I was the only adult who knew), and I didn’t push any further.

I’ve written about that before. And now that I have a daughter, a daughter whom I love with an intensity that takes my breath away, have my views changed? What if Heloise Cerys Raquel were pregnant at 16? Would I want her to come to me? Of course. But if she couldn’t come to me, for whatever reason, I would not want the state to compel her to do so. I would hope that she would find someone like, well, me — a teacher or a youth leader whose counsel she trusted. I would hope that if she chose abortion, that she would have easy access to a skilled medical provider — and to friends to support her through the process.

Growing up, I heard a joke that sounded as if it had the whiff of common sense behind it:

Q: What’s the definition of a conservative?
A: A liberal with a teenage daughter.

It was sexist, of course, but also captured conventional thinking about the way in which anxiety about adolescent sexuality is “supposed” to turn otherwise progressive parents into anxious reactionaries.

Heloise is not a teen. She’s fourteen months old. But I can see in her the woman she will someday become. I am fiercely protective of her as my vulnerable child. I know that she will, gradually, grow less and less vulnerable. When she came into this world, she bequeathed to her parents the guardianship of her autonomy. Because as a newborn, she could do nothing for herself, we were of necessity sovereign over her. But already, my little girl (who is now toddling about) is asserting her will. When it’s bathtime, she wants to pull off her own pants, or pull her dress over her own head. She’s making heroic efforts to feed herself with a spoon (these are efforts, mind you, not yet successes.) And the early stages of toilet-training are going well.

Heloise is, to put it simply, already reclaiming what is rightfully hers. Soon she will feed and dress herself; soon she will walk off to school; soon she will begin to take her parents’ vision of the world and test it against her own experiences and the messages she gets from her own soul. Our love for her will grow even as we slowly, sometimes anxiously, relinquish back to her the agency that is her birthright. And by the time she is a teen, though she will have been on the receiving end of some first-rate sexual education, she will be making her own choices. We will counsel, we will advise, and we will surrender her to the God who made her. We know that God will speak to her most clearly not through our voices, but through the still, small voice that she will find inside of herself. There will be worry, no doubt, for her parents. That’s part of the job. But our fears will not trump her rights for long.

As the husband of a woman whom I watched give birth, as the father of a daughter whose umbilical cord I cut with awe, I am a thousand times more pro-choice today than I was before I watched the sonograms and held a tiny infant in my arms. And I will fight with every fiber of my being for the right of women like my wife, and girls like my daughter, to remain safe. And safety requires that to the greatest extent possible, they remain sovereign over their choices, their bodies, their lives.

25 thoughts on “Parental notification reconsidered — and rejected — by the father of a daughter

  1. Thanks Hugo, for this wonderful post.

    Having grown up with very loving parents that I would never, ever ask for counsel on this subject, I understand that having loving parents do not necessarily mean that they have earned the trust in this particular department.

    If I have a daughter, and she did not come to me for counsel, I would feel as I have failed to provide her with an environment where she felt safe to discuss these issues- and yes, I would want the same for her that I had for myself- which is caring, intelligent people that could counsel me and provide me with information to make my own choice- and caring medical professionals available to me, whether the choice be an abortion provider or prenatal care.

    Thank you.

  2. My only concern here is that teens might be quicker to judge their parents as ‘unsafe’ than is perhaps necessary. I can’t imagine that the majority of situations here are ones in which the parent might kill, harm or disown their child and/or force them to do one thing or the other.

  3. Funt, yes- I know many parents that would force their kids to do one thing or another. And they’re loving parents, overall.

    My best friend has an otherwise close relationship with her parents- but both parents are devout Catholic. When she told her parents about her abortion she had when she was a teen over a decade ago while discussing parental notification law, her parents’ reply was, without hesitation- well, if you came to us- you’d have been a mother, no questions asked. She loves her parents, but their reply was proof that she did made the right decision for herself.

    My own parents- and they were loving parents- had a very, very negative association with sex outside of marriage. I was fortunate to have access to information- medical information gleaned from doctors and nurses that were friends’ parents- as well my own doctor who supplied me with book lists I would seek out and read myself. I would, to this day, never talk to them about any unintended pregnancy as an unmarried woman, ever.

  4. Nice post, Hugo. Good to hear how little Heloise is progressing. Our Victoria is much the same age but a bit slower to advance: some toddling and helping with dressing, plus a bit of the spoon thing.

    You pretty much capture how I feel about my duty to sponsor my daughter’s autonomy as it continues to grow.

  5. That parents are extremely loving and otherwise good parents is kind of beside the point though, if someone needs to have an abortion and does so without informing their parents I think it’s safe to say that they have their reasons and their reasons alone are good enough for me.

  6. My father always used to say that he would definitely be a Conservative if he didn’t have two daughters. :-)

    You are a great father, Hugo. Almost as good as mine. :-)

  7. What troubles me about discussions such as this is the implied assumption that because some parents might get it wrong, all need to be kept out of the discussion. There is a strong trend in the entertainment of teenagers that teaches them parents are idiots and not to be trusted; having any and every conversation other than the most surface talk is nerdy and uncool. Thus, there may be reasons for teenagers choosing to avoid their parents other than the fact that parents don’t have an open mind on this particular issue. And because of that. . .all parents are to be kept in the dark? Even more troubling is the assumption that a doctor or clinic worker who hardly knows this young woman understands her situation better than the one who has raised her from birth, who lives with her day and night, who has walked with her every single step along this journey. Yes, a trusted youth worker or mentor is helpful, but again, this is one who has maybe an hour of their time every week (if they’re lucky) for a year or two, vs. the wisdom of parents who have known this girl since she herself was a baby. Where’s the logic in believing an overworked school nurse knows better than the parent who has held this girl as a crying child, who has driven this girl to softball practice and birthday parties – even the parent who has the primary responsibility of raising this child to be a well-adjusted member of society?

    It seems that, because a small minority of parents may not support their daughter (read: fund her abortion), and because most (read: all) teens refuse to talk to their parents, we’ve created a horrible loophole that leaves these kids emotionally vulnerable right at the time they need parents the most.

  8. Awesome, awesome post. I love this view of parenting, and the argument… Just great.

    To Dan: I think you missed the point. No one is saying that “that a doctor or clinic worker who hardly knows this young woman understands her situation better than the one who has raised her from birth, who lives with her day and night, who has walked with her every single step along this journey.” I agree with you that the opposite is in fact the case. I merely insist that no matter how well that loving parent knows his/her daughter and her situation, THE YOUNG WOMAN HERSELF KNOWS BEST. Her body, her choice; not her parents’, not her doctor’s, but her own. I don’t argue for any guardian’s voice, I argue for “the still, small voice that she will find inside of herself.”

    As for your argument that media will dissuade teens from talking to their parents about abortion, I really think you should trust teens a bit more. All through my teenage years, I had a close and loving relationship with both my parents, and if I had gotten pregnant, I would never have hesitated to go to either one for help (my mother did buy me a pregnancy test the one time I got scared). This was the situation for most of my friends as well. There were exceptions, but so far as I could tell, none of these exceptions had anything to do with TV or popular culture – all were based on real and serious differences between parent and child, where the teenager had to make the right choice for him or her self, even knowing that his or her parents would probably never approve (an example being a lesbian friend with devout Mormon parents; she came out to them later, and they disowned her, but at the time she was too young etc. to leave home so she kept it to herself). In general, I think that while media may influence how teens talk about their parents to their friends, or how they perceive ‘parents’ as a general category of people, the two biggest influences on a teen/parent relationship are without question the teen and the parent, and parents should trust their children and themselves, rather than try to make laws mandating that trust (trust can’t be ordered, only built, earned, nurtured, etc.).

  9. Dan,

    The difference in world view is incredibly apparent in your post.

    If the question was who gets to make a decision drastically affecting a young woman’s life, someone who knows and loves her well or a well intentioned person who doesn’t know her well – your post might make sense but most of us on the other side of the argument from you object to the very idea that someone gets to make that decision. We don’t want the decision making to go from the parents to the mentor we want the decision to be with the woman! It seems you can’t imagine non adult authority person making that decision.

    And between someone who has seen the woman young and helpless and watched her grow and loves her like crazy and is crazy invested in her life and someone more objective – it is obvious who is more likely to impose their own preferences and beliefs on the women instead of listening to her.

    For the record, I would have absolutely gone to my parents because that was our relationship and it would not occurred to me not to. I had friends that would have gone to me instead of parents. Neither of those predispositions had a damn thing to do with the media.

  10. Most teenagers are not cognitively competent to make serious life decisions for themselves. The decision ends up being made largely outside the teenager’s own limited agency – by health care workers, advocates, teachers, peers, whoever has influence over the teen.

    Arguing against parental involvement in this (or other major) decision isn’t arguing for the teenager making their own choices as a fully empowered liberated human; they haven’t reached that stage of life yet. Instead, it is arguing for elevating the nonfamilial social network over the familial.

  11. I should say, obviously that’s an argument that loses force over time. A 19-year old is much more likely to have achieved mental adulthood than a 13-year old.

  12. I would also like to point out to Dan that no one is saying “that because some parents might get it wrong, all need to be kept out of the discussion.” Rather, the point is that a teenage girl needs to judge that situation for herself, and can CHOOSE whether her parents are brought into that conversation. Of course, we should suggest to girls in this situation that their parents might be caring, knowledgible resources in a difficult time. At the same time, we have no place to force ANYONE else’s opinions on her.

    As Hugo so elegantly states, children often grow up to have different views and opinions from their parents, and as parents it is (or will be, in my case) our responsibility to recognize and respect that autonomy. If we hold certain beliefs so firmly, it is to our greater advantage to pass those on to our children through good teaching and positive reinforcement. How much better to let them choose those beliefs for their own, rather than forcing our opinions on our children at the risk of their resentment or rebellion!

    Also, as someone who has recieved medical care that WAS NOT MY CHOICE, I am very, very outspoken as to the right of ANY person to have control over what happens to his/her body. To say the very least, it is terrifying, invasive, and traumatizing to have that choice taken away.

  13. Also, what of abusive parents? People who think that “some parents might get it wrong” only means the parents disagree with the girl don’t seem to realize that sometimes it might be dangerous for the girl if her parents find out.

  14. If teenagers are smart enough to decide for themselves whether to bear a child or have an abortion (or engage in reproductive sexuality at all), then why don’t we let them drive (before a certain age, and a rather rigorous certification process)? Why don’t we let them vote? Why don’t we let them drink? Why don’t we let them join the Army (without a parent’s consent)?

    Arguments for agency that do not take into serious consideration the fact – not the opinion, the FACT – that teenagers are not yet cognitively adult, are not serious arguments.

  15. I have mixed feelings about this question, but lean slightly in favor of notification (assuming the statute has well-crafted override provisions, etc). You write beautifully about the agency of minors, but the problem for me is that teenagers do not, generally speaking, have the right to make their own medical decisions. If parents are in the position of making all other medical decisions for a teenager, it seems extremely problematic to deny them information that their child has undergone a nontrivial medical procedure. Abortion is generally very safe, but, like anything, it carries risks and may contraindicate other medical treatments and activities.

    Notification really seems like a compromise to me, albeit an imperfect one. If the general rule is that parents make medical decisions for minor children, it seems like a compromise to let the parents know what is going on while leaving the final decision up to the patient. An alternate route, of course, would be to allow minors complete control over their own medical care from a younger age, which presents its own set of messy questions.

  16. Let me say that I strongly favor notification for other medical procedures, and I do not over-exaggerate the agency of minors. (My strong defense of statutory rape laws and my opposition to lowering the age of consent for relations with substantially older partners should make that clear.) Abortion is the classic case of something sui generis, for which there is no comparison. And too many girls, faced with the choice between telling their parents or not having a safe and legal abortion have, alas, chosen unsafe and disastrous methods.

  17. Robert,

    Your argument falls down because no one seems to be doubting, among the pro-lifers agitating for this sort of law, that a teenager is cognitively competent to *decide to bear a child* — you don’t have to notify your parents that you’re pregnant if you intend to carry to term, after all — only if you want an abortion. Why is one less an “adult” decision than the other? Why does one require interference from the state, and the other not?

    It’s not analogous to driving, or to drinking, or to joining the Army — because in each of those cases there’s a clear opposite. (They can NOT drive, NOT drink, and NOT join-the-army.) But if a teenage girl is *already* pregnant, she can’t NOT have-sex-and-get-pregnant. ANY of the available choices entail possible trauma, abuse, misery, pain, and even death.

    If what pro-lifers are really saying, here, is that parents *should* have legal control over their daughters’ reproductive choices, then perhaps pro-lifers should realize that as many parents are likely to *force* abortions as to prevent them. (“No child of mine is going to drop out of school and be an unwed mother!”) And that in any case, a lot of heartache and abuse of teenage girls is going to result.

    It is, definitely, a fact that teenagers are not cognitively the same as adults. “More” or “less” competent is a sort of a red herring; they’re *different*, and they’re vulnerable in ways that adults aren’t, but they do have ideas and values and needs of their own that are *real*, not just “teenage craziness” or “brain underdevelopment”. And they are *entitled* to those values and ideas and needs.

    And moreover, they are *entitled* to make decisions for themselves when they are already in a situation which can — as mentioned above, have outcomes *any* of which might lead to bodily injury and/or death.

    To use a different analogy from yours: almost no one would think it was strange or wrong to have a law that said, “Teenagers can’t go skydiving without their parents’ permission.” That’s why we don’t let them drink, or drive, or join the army.

    But what is being advocated here isn’t that. What’s being advocated is a law that says, “Once a teenager jumps out of a plane illicitly, she has to get her parents’ permission to *pull the ripcord* on her parachute.”

  18. @Hugo: Point taken. Of course nothing is exactly like abortion, but there are plenty of other situations where minors who have have strong motivation to hide a medical problem from parents require parental consent to obtain treatment. One obvious example is psychiatric care. A teenager with a serious mental illness must obtain parental consent to obtain treatment with psychotropic medications. California has no exception for such teens and I’m pretty sure most other states are the same. I don’t see why letting a parent *know* about an abortion violates a teenager’s agency more than allowing a parent to *completely deny care* to a mentally ill teen (or, on the other hand, force such care on a teen who does not want it).

  19. Abortion tends to be a different case BECAUSE so many parents are opposed to it (I like the mental health comparison, only I go in the other direction). Most parents are not opposed to their kid getting their arm in a cast. Most parents are not opposed to their kid getting antibiotics. They only thing most parents are opposed to are anything involving their kids dealing with that squishy sexuality.

    I would have never told my parents if I had gotten an abortion (I still wouldn’t, and I’m an adult). They’re too uncomfortable with anything having to do with sex and me and my sisters. They would have thrown me out of the house, and probably slept very well the next day after doing it.

  20. Lucy, I don’t see psychiatric care as analogous. Sex is different. Most parents don’t blame a daughter for struggling with depression . An astounding number of parents will at best be disappointed, and at worst — well, you can imagine worst — when they discover that she who was in diapers a decade and a half earlier is now pregnant. There simply is nothing else quite like this.

    I’m proud that Californians have thrice (2005, 2006, and 2008) rejected propositions that would have imposed such a requirement.

  21. Robert is right. Teenage girls should not be allowed to have sex without parental notification – that would solve the whole problem!

    (And it is amusing that Robert is agitating for increased government intervention into the family. But I digress.)

    Adrienne already made the point I was going to discuss about the alternative to abortion, but it also seems a lot of people don’t understand what a parental notification law is. Please note: the word is “notification”, not “consent”. Nothing says that your teenage daughter needs your permission.

    And, of course, she doesn’t need to tell you at all. She can to go a judge and get permission to go behind your back – because not to have such an option would permit a mother who pimps her young daughter out to prevent her daughter from getting an abortion (lest some nosy clinic worker ask inconvenient question). So notification laws STILL don’t guarantee that you’ll get to be involved in her decision in any way.

  22. Lucy, sorry for the double post, but what’s the point of “letting the parent know” if they have no legal requirement to give permission? Hi, Mrs. Soandso, we’re telling you that your daughter is having an abortion tomorrow. No, I’m afraid you can’t do anything about it. Yes, she has the money to pay for it – we don’t know where she got it from, maybe her boyfriend. Have a good one!

  23. Good point, mythago. We both know parental notification exists simply to give parents a cudgel to brandish over minor daughters. As they cannot prevent any course of action the daughter decides on, what else could it be.

    Robert, if my now seven-year-old girl has a teen-aged abortion without telling me, surely that would say more about me than about any party that would influence her. By the way, I’ll take a risk and ventriloquize for all those here who favor confidential access: of course the advice-givers have an agenda. So would the parents. Dreadful sorry.

    This may strike some of you reading as a non-sequitor, but there’s a Planned Parenthood across the street from the library where I take my daughter after school to do her homework. The usual gaggle of anti-abortion activists makes their case at the women and girls who go in the clinic. I never see nubile women among the dissuaders. I can’t help but think this has something to do with why I ought to be glad minors can get a confidential abortion.

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