The Magazine

"The Deal with Older Guys"

There's a good reason Americans support parental notification laws.

Aug 12, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 46 • By ERIC FELTEN
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EVERYONE SEEMS TO AGREE that Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, President Bush's nominee for a spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, has about as much chance of getting past Judiciary Committee Democrats as James Traficant has of getting back into Congress. The reason: The "pro-choice" lobby has made her defeat its Number One priority.

What disqualifies Owen, in the eyes of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) and other critics, is her decision to uphold a Texas "parental notification" law. That law requires a minor, if she wants an abortion without her parents knowing about it, to demonstrate to a judge one of three things: (1) that she is sufficiently mature and well informed to make the decision herself; (2) that notification would not be in her "best interest"; or (3) that her parents would react to the news with physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

Parental notification laws are tricky for the abortion rights crowd. Somewhere around three-fourths of Americans favor statutes that require girls under 18 to get their parents' consent for an abortion. Not having had much luck dissuading voters--there are 42 states with laws requiring some type of parental consent or notification--Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and other abortion-rights groups have concentrated on creating enough loopholes and exceptions in those laws to make them ineffectual. For example, suspending parental notification when a judge deems a girl sufficiently mature would normally make an excellent loophole, as long as judges are willing to take an elastic view of what counts as maturity. Justice Owen was not.

It's hard to blame her. After all, if parents are kept in the dark, who looks out for the best interests of underage girls? In practice it is the clinic workers, the ones counseling pregnant teens, who assume the burden of protecting girls' welfare. Which is why in most states, doctors, nurses, counselors, and other abortion-clinic workers are held to the same standard as doctors, nurses, and counselors in any other health care facilities: That is, they have a legal obligation to report child abuse when they see evidence of it. So it is worth asking how well clinics are fulfilling their role--and responsibilities--as advocates for troubled girls. The answer, it seems, is not well at all.

Life Dynamics is an aggressive, Texas-based antiabortion group. Mark Crutcher, who runs the group, has for years used lawsuits to harass doctors who provide abortions. Looking to lay the groundwork for a class-action lawsuit against abortion providers, Crutcher devised a way to test whether clinic staff would report child abuse when they saw it. Crutcher's group made and recorded some 800 phone calls to clinics around the country. (It is legal in Texas for a party to a phone call to record it without the other party's permission.) In each call, a woman pretending (very convincingly) to be 13 years old explains to the clinic that she is pregnant by her 22-year-old boyfriend; she asks if her boyfriend can bring her in for an abortion. Listening to the tapes, it is abundantly clear that the clinic counselors know where their duty lies--they are legally obliged to blow the whistle on the "boyfriend"--but that most have no desire to do their duty.

Consider this call to a clinic in Colorado, in which the "13-year-old" is interrupted the moment she mentions the age of her boyfriend.

CLINIC: Okay, let me stop you right there because if you tell me anything else, I have to call the police.

CALLER: Why?

CLINIC: Because you're 13 and your partner's 22, right?

CALLER: Yeah.

CLINIC: That's against the law. I have to report it by law.

CALLER: Oh.

CLINIC: So I don't want to know your name or anything about you if you don't want me calling the police.

CALLER: Okay.

CLINIC: So what you need to do is you need to call completely anonymously and, you know, talk to someone on our appointment line. And don't tell us anything about who your partner is.

That call is representative of what Life Dynamics calls the "overwhelming majority" of the calls it placed. And indeed, listening to a sampling of the conversations, one hears a surfeit of such conspiratorial catch phrases as "I'll pretend I never heard that" and "Forget that you told me that." Clinic staff are exceedingly helpful at coaching the caller in how to keep her boyfriend's age a secret. A Kentucky counselor assures the caller that, though the clinic is supposed to report her pregnancy to the police as evidence of statutory rape, "we've never reported anybody."