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."

Planned Parenthood, whose clinics received the lion's share of the phone calls, has been loath to discuss what is on the tapes, instead issuing a statement dismissing "the reliability of staged tapes of supposed telephone conversations surreptitiously prepared by Life Dynamics, an organization with a notorious anti-Planned Parenthood agenda."

For his part, Crutcher has never tried to hide the fact that his sting operation is part of his litigious, antiabortion agenda. He says the results are proof that clinics have "made a conscious decision to conceal the sexual exploitation of children and protect the men who commit these crimes."

What exactly is Planned Parenthood's attitude towards statutory rape? In a word, relaxed. Consider a column on Planned Parenthood's award-winning website for the underage set, www.teenwire.com, headlined "The Deal With Older Guys." The article--illustrated by a picture of a girl in pigtails (that's right, pigtails) and a man with a snappy van dyke on his chin--starts out with a catalog of the obvious benefits of Lolitahood. "A major piece of eye-candy asked you out. You're floating. Not only is he gorgeous, but he's older. Older equals sophisticated. He has money, a car, a job, an apartment, experience, adventure, and excitement. He doesn't have a curfew, parents on his case, homework, or acne. What's not to like?" But soon the article switches to a more cautious tone. "He's been around. You're thinking, 'He can transport me to ecstasy. He can teach me the ins and outs (so to speak) of sex.' On the other hand, he's been with a heap of partners. Increasing the chance he'll pass on 'the gift that keeps on giving'--a sexually transmitted infection."

The article continues with some helpful warning signs of the older guys one should steer clear of. For example, if "he treats females disrespectfully [and] calls women 'hos' or 'sluts.' Watch out." But just when it looks as though their advice will be that, all things considered, a 13-year-old really shouldn't be sleeping with predatory men in their 20s, the column delivers this conclusion: "So are all older guy/younger girl relationships dangerous, harmful, and sick? Of course not."

Does it matter that Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers are, at best, willing to turn a blind eye to statutory rape? After all, few people can work up much indignation over the indiscretion of two high school students in love, one of whom happens to have just passed his eighteenth birthday. (That is, few other than the girl's father should he happen to be on the old-fashioned side.) But as the Life Dynamics sting demonstrated, Planned Parenthood staffers are inclined to look the other way, not just when 17-year-olds are involved, but when a 13-year-old confesses that she is having sex with a man nearly 10 years her senior.

This is a habit of mind and action that has dangerous consequences. Early this year a 10-year-old girl went to her Bridgeport, Conn., doctors, who discovered that she was pregnant. A pregnant 10-year-old is, by definition, walking evidence of sexual abuse. But the doctors, Mukesh Shah and Ann Lule, failed to report the pregnancy to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. Likewise the Summit Women's Center, a clinic that performs abortions. (The girl in the end didn't get an abortion.)

Luckily, the girl's mother called the police, and on April 17, they arrested a man named Jimmy Kave. According to police, Kave confessed to having had sex with the girl repeatedly since January 2001. Kave, it is worth noting, is 75 years old, has a 1984 conviction for child sexual assault in New Haven, and met the little girl through an "Adopt-a-Godparent" program that pairs kids with seniors.

The girl, now 11, gave birth in May. She and her child are in the custody of the state of Connecticut. (Kave is in a different sort of custody, though he is now denying paternity and has given blood for a DNA test.) But if the girl had gone ahead with an abortion and no one had reported it, she might still be spending her afternoons in Kave's apartment. Such is "the deal with older guys."

Eric Felten is a Washington writer and jazz musician.