Minors in Alabama must be at least 14-years old to operate a personal watercraft by themselves, 16-years old to get a driver’s license and 17-years old to watch an R-rated movie without a parent or guardian.
Then there are all those permission slips required for school field trips, sports programs and extra-curricular activities.
The trend is clear – kids need parental guidance and permission to do certain things in our society. But until a new law went into effect last summer, a teenage girl could obtain what amounted to a judicial rubberstamp to bypass Alabama’s parental consent law and get an abortion.
Now that law is under attack.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama filed a federal lawsuit challenging the measure’s constitutionality. Susan Watson, the organization’s executive director, said in a news release that minors will be treated like criminals if they need an abortion without parental consent. “This law aims to shame a young woman into not having an abortion,” Watson said.
No, it doesn’t. Alabama’s parental consent law aims to protect the life of an unborn child, the health of a teenage mother, the rights of her parents and the interests of the state. Courts simply didn’t have to consider any of those factors before enactment of the law, which was sponsored earlier this year by State Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia.
“This act clarified previous law to provide judges and court officers with much-needed guidance on the procedures for these types of determinations,” Jones told AL.com after the ACLU’s lawsuit was filed.
Courts ruled in the 1980s that the constitution extended abortion rights to minors. The courts also said that parental permission was acceptable if a judicial bypass was available for girls who feared abuse. Without clear guidance, however, judges were left to determine the process alone, and the bypass eventually became a routine where any unsubstantiated claim from a minor would be grounds to keep her parents in the dark.
Former juvenile court judge James T. Strickland from Mobile told the AP in 1997 that he couldn’t deny any bypass requests because higher courts believed it violated a girl’s constitutional rights. “If I didn’t approve it, it would be reserved on appeal,” Strickland said.
The problem is widespread. Since 2010, about 75-percent of all requests to keep abortions secret from a minor’s parents were granted in Arizona, according to the AP. Helena Silverstein, a LaFayette University researcher and abortion law specialist, also told the AP that the same statistics could be seen nationwide. “In every state I have studied, or other people have studied, the pattern is the same,” Silverstein said.
That pattern will hopefully stop in Alabama now that judges must set aside the rubberstamp and start asking questions. Under the new law, the minor must show that she understands the procedure and its consequences, a district attorney must become involved and parents can participate in the hearing if they’re already aware of the pregnancy.
One of the measure’s most revolutionary aspects, however, is that it requires courts to appoint a lawyer to represent the unborn child.
This small but meaningful step could change the entire nature of how the court, the minor and her parents discuss and ultimately decide the issue. Maybe that’s why abortion-on-demand proponents are so outraged by the law.
“Why should (the minor) be put on trial and treated like a criminal for a constitutionally protected procedure?” Watson asked in the ACLU’s news release.
The answer is simple; she’s not being treated like a criminal. She’s being treated like a minor, and one who needs the guidance and protection of loving parents or a responsible court during a crisis pregnancy.
There are many things our society doesn’t want children doing without parental permission, and our laws have repeatedly affirmed that parents have a responsibility — and a right — to monitor and guide their child’s activities. If they cannot, then the state becomes actively involved. This certainly should apply to a dangerous and life-altering medical procedure like abortion. Let’s hope our attorney general defends the law effectively and the federal courts agree.
(J. Pepper Bryars grew up in Mobile and is now a writer living in Huntsville. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and jpepperbryars.com.)