Matter of choice
Feminist health advocates rally against Prop. 73
While invited guests and the media awaited the arrival of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inside the air-conditioned Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. two weeks ago, pro-choice advocates braved 97-degree temperatures outside the brewery to demonstrate their opposition to Proposition 73, an initiative that requires parental notification if a female seeking an abortion is under 18 years of age. At the present time, 33 states have parental-involvement laws.
According to pro-choice advocates, the law targets teenagers who have compelling reasons for not involving their parents in their family planning and reproductive decisions. Under existing California law, teenagers have the right to family-planning related services such as those relating to birth control, abortion, prenatal care, childbirth, adoption and sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, without the consent of their parents.
Schwarzenegger has endorsed the idea of parental notification, but has not taken a position on the measure.
The Women’s Health Specialists (WHS) of Northern California advocates reproductive freedom and opposes any legislation that places restrictions on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. The organization’s stance is that abortion is a medically safe and simple procedure and that it is unconstitutional to deny sexually active women access to preventative family planning procedures. Proposition 73 is on the Nov. 8 California special election ballot.
Eileen Schnitger, development director of WHS, said that national polls indicate that the public favors legal abortion. “Campaign strategists speculate that Gov. Schwarzenegger is avoiding commenting directly on Proposition 73 because it may hurt his chances of re-election in 2006,” Schnitger said. “It’s polling 50/50, too close to call and he’s watching which way the wind of public opinion blows.”
Proponents of the initiative say that they are not seeking a parental consent law, only a 48-hour waiting period to notify parents that their daughter is seeking an abortion. According to the Institute of Governmental Policy at the University of California in Berkeley, Proposition 73 would also require that physicians report abortions and that the State compile statistics. In 1987 the California Legislature amended state law to require that minors obtain parental consent. The mother of a teenager who received family planning services at the WHS, without her mother’s consent, was used to campaign for the law. The amendment was never implemented and was challenged in 1997. The state Supreme Court struck down the law on grounds that it violated a minor’s constitutional right to privacy.
Supporters of Proposition 73 say that safety is the issue, and that the initiative is not an attack against the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. They argue that parental notification and a 48-hour waiting period ensures that parents have an opportunity to consult with their daughter before she makes a life-altering decision. Diana Philip, co-founder of Jane’s DUE PROCESS, a statewide, non-profit organization that provides free legal services to pregnant minors, said in an article for the Center for American Progress ("Legal Child Abuse: The Harm of Parental Involvement Laws"), “a family that is unable to communicate due to a significant degree of dysfunction, separation and/or abuse is unlikely to respond appropriately during such an important life decision.”
Past attempts to place legislation similar to Proposition 73 on the ballot in California failed. However, according to the North Bay Progressive, the current initiative, financed in part by James Holman, owner of the weekly San Diego Reader, Don Sebastiani, Sonoma winemaker and former assemblyman, and Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, obtained enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot.
Feminist health care providers argue that parental notification laws will result in delayed medical care for the most vulnerable teens, putting them at risk for health complications, premature parenting and possible physical abuse. Philips noted that Texas has one of the most recent laws, now 5 years old, and as of June 5 of this year, the law changed from notification to mandating consent.
“Mandated notification by Texas clinics has not resulted in an increase in parental involvement in a teenager’s decisions regarding abortion, as the law intended,” Schnitger said. “Some parents physically abused, abandoned or disowned their daughters when they found out they were pregnant.”
Schnitger views the initiative as a thinly veiled attempt to reverse the hard-won reproductive freedoms women have worked diligently to obtain and an erosion of rights granted under Roe v. Wade. She pointed to legislation in other states as an example of what could happen in California and across the nation.
“In Texas, the parental notification law gave way to a law requiring parental consent. In Mississippi and Georgia, parental consent laws gave way to a new requirement that a parent must accompany their daughter to the clinic for an abortion to be performed.”
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Rep. Todd Akin, R-Miss., introduced legislation (S 1279, HR 3011) in both the Senate and House that would require mandatory parental consent for a teenager to obtain birth control. All clinics receiving federal funds would be required to notify parents of a minor’s request for contraception five days prior to dispensing it to her.
“If passed, this legislation, known as the Parent’s Right to Know Act, would impact young women receiving care at more than 4,400 family planning clinics nationwide,” said Schnitger.
The legislation would affect reproductive health care services to about 5 million low-income and uninsured women throughout the United States.
The woman-centered medical model pioneered in the United States has had an influence on women around the globe. Representatives from the WHS have traveled to England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Cuba, Jamaica, Belize, New Zealand, Iran, China, Japan, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Mexico, sharing their health care model with women from every walk of life and circumstance.
In Japan, Schnitger said, “women translated our books and formed their own self-help groups. Women from all over the world have visited our health centers to learn about the woman-controlled, self-help medical model. National leaders from Guinea came to Chico to develop an advocacy program for the women of Guinea.”
While other countries look to the United States for medical models that respect the reproductive rights of women, pro-choice advocates fear that the hard-won freedoms obtained by women are in jeopardy.
“Forcing women to get a parent’s approval for an abortion is unnecessary and places an undue burden on young women already facing a major life decision,” said Shauna Heckert, executive director of WHS.
“Young women should be the ones to decide who they need to consult and where they need to get support. When Roe v. Wade became law, there was no mention of age or restriction on who could obtain an abortion. Each young woman’s situation is unique and she is in the best position to evaluate her individual needs.”
She went on to say that the restriction is spearheaded by anti-choice groups because they want to make it difficult for women to get an abortion.
“They have been unsuccessful in outlawing abortion, so the next best thing is to make an abortion harder to obtain.”
Heckert said she considers the Feminist Women’s Health Centers a living symbol of women’s freedom and self-determination.
“We continue to advocate, promote and protect reproductive rights for all women. It is our absolute belief that women have the right to choose when, if and under what circumstances they will have children, that’s what sets us apart from other women’s healthcare providers. We have continued to provide services while fighting for the basic tenets of women’s liberation. Every day family planning clinics are open is a victory for all women.”