Parental Notification: What to Do?

She is 17. She is pregnant. She does not want to be.

Her father is estranged and her mother is abusive. She has been warned, many times, that if she were to get pregnant she would be thrown out. She makes the decision to consult a social worker at her school whom she trusts. After much deliberation she makes the decision: she is not ready to be a mother.

She goes to the clinic. The doctor will tell her that he is required to notify her parents or another adult who lives with her before he can perform the procedure. She is terrified to tell her mom and does not know her dad's whereabouts. What else can she do?

She can seek a judicial bypass, the doctor says. She needs to go before a judge to plead her case. Or, she can tell the doctor if she is being abused, but he will be legally obligated to report her mom. Where will she live if her mom is sent away?

This is a terrible situation that no one would wish upon any young woman. Now, due to a recent ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court it could become all too commonplace. The court recently ruled to make the 20 year, unenforced abortion parental notification law constitutional, unless there's an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On August 15, through the Illinois Parental Notice of Abortion Act, Illinois will begin to require that if a girl aged 17 and under decides to have an abortion, an "adult family member" must be notified before the abortion. An adult family member can be a parent, grandparent, or step-parent who lives with the teen, or their legal guardian. The doctor tells the adult family member that the teen will be having an abortion, and the family member does not have to give the teen permission and does not have the right to tell the teen that they cannot get the abortion.

The Illinois law does allow for exceptions. For instance, if the teen gives a medical provider a written statement that says she is a victim of abuse by an adult family member (at which point the doctor would also be required to report the abuse). Or, the doctor deems the procedure medically necessary.

I absolutely agree that teenage girls should not be making such life-changing decisions on their own. However, I'm conflicted when I think of the emotional stress and the complex legal systems that young women who are already grappling with such difficult circumstances face in negotiating the path to a judicial bypass. I try to imagine what it would be like to be in her shoes.

Some Chicago nonprofits are also concerned and they are trying to get ahead of the decision to ensure the bypass process is as smooth as possible for young women who truly need it. The judicial bypass hearing is a free, confidential process that allows for a judge to rule within 48 hours if the minor is able to have an abortion without notifying an adult family member. In doing so, the judge maintains that, either the minor is "sufficiently mature and well enough informed to make an intelligent decision about whether to have an abortion," or, "notification would not be in her best interest." Through the ACLU of Illinois' Judicial Bypass Coordination Project, free lawyers are available who are specially trained to help minors.

Forty-eight hours seems reasonable, but imagine you've already grappled with the decision and made your choice. And, what about the countless young women who won't be aware of legal services like those provided by the ACLU and attempt to navigate the system alone? I can only imagine this will result in delays much longer than forty-eight hours, not to mention the increased medical risk that comes with waiting.

Gaylon Alcaraz, CEO of the Chicago Abortion Fund is concerned about the impact of this new government interference: "On a daily basis, we hear from teens that have been either kicked out the house and are homeless, physically abused or threatened with violence because they are pregnant. Now these same teens will have to either face a court system in an effort to have an abortion or carry an unwanted pregnancy to term." Or, as the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH), a network of empowered youth and their adult allies says in their online statement, "Teens will have the limited options: to notify a parent whom they may have chosen not to involve in the process for good reason, [to] navigate a difficult judicial system, or carry a pregnancy to term against their will. These are not just, safe, or healthy options for young people in Illinois."

I believe that no young woman should have to face such a difficult decision on her own. She should have supportive parent, an adult ally, an advocate, or a trusted advisor to help her weigh her options, and to help her feel confident and secure when making life-changing decisions about her body and her life. Ideally, this type of trusted guidance is between a young girl and her parents, who cares for her and is actively involved in her life. However, we can all imagine real circumstances where this type of trust does not exist and such openness could endanger her wellbeing and safety.

Should we not trust that if a young woman makes the decision to forgo notifying her parents that, perhaps, it is for a good reason? Or, do we truly need to rely upon the government to make those decisions for her? How can we as a society make sure that she has the supports she needs?

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