Unwanted Conversation

I met Lydia at the bus stop one afternoon outside Hollywood High School. An impeccably pretty 16-year-old with neatly pulled back raven hair, warm black eyes delicately lined with a hint of blue, and a brilliant smile, she had been sitting with a few other girls, talking to pass the time while they waited for their MTA rides home. None of them had heard of Proposition 73, but when I explained it to them — “it means if a girl under 18 wants to end a pregnancy, the doctor she goes to has to tell her parents” — Lydia didn’t hang her head and slink away shyly like so many other girls her age. Nor did she boast that she can talk to her parents about everything. Instead, Lydia shook her head vigorously and made a face.

“I don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t like it at all.”

“What don’t you like about it?” I asked her.

“I don’t like it because if I get pregnant and my parents are against abortion, they’d make me have the baby. And that would ruin my life.”

Illustration by Mr. Fish

As it turned out, this was not mere abstract theory for Lydia. A year ago, she’d had unprotected sex and ended up pregnant. She wasn’t a victim of rape or incest or a broken condom; she wasn’t being manipulated by an older man. Instead, Lydia and a boy her age had careless sex. “It was a mistake,” she says, “I wouldn’t make again.”

Lydia didn’t tell her mother, whom she lives with, or her father, who lives somewhere else. She limited the news to a few friends, and went to a clinic, where she ended the pregnancy in secret. It wasn’t until recently — more than a year later — that she confided in her mom.

“She told me she would’ve helped me out with the baby,” said Lydia. “But I know that’s a big-ass lie. I would have been on my own. And she would’ve tried to punish me, like, ‘Here, this is what you get for having sex at your age.’”

So what would have happened if California had a parental-notification law when Lydia found out she was pregnant?

She makes another face. “I would have had to keep the baby, and I wouldn’t be sitting at this bus stop right now, because I’d be dropping out of high school and working a minimum-wage job. And that’s how it would be for the rest of my life, because that’s how it was for my mom. She was two months away from her 17th birthday when she had me.”

On the face of it the parental-notification referendum doesn’t seem so bad. Plenty of states have worse: Twenty-one require flat-out parental consent; Mississippi and North Dakota require that both parents say yes, and in Minnesota — the home of 73’s principal author, University of St. Thomas law professor Teresa Collett — both parents must be notified. Prop. 73 has been expertly inoculated against all foreseen legal challenges, including any that might come from California’s courts, which already struck down a parental-consent law similar to one the U.S. Supreme Court allowed to stand in other states. The ballot measure contains language the high court insists upon, allowing a girl to seek a waiver from a judge if there exists some extenuating circumstance making notification risky or impossible; it only mandates notification, not consent — presuming a girl feels confident that she’ll be allowed back in the house after proceeding against her parents’ wishes. And because California’s Constitution protects a minor’s right to medical access and privacy better than federal law does, Prop. 73 amends the state Constitution — substituting the words “unborn child” for “fetus.”

None of this, however, would have mattered to Lydia, who, like so many girls her age, would neither have had the rebellious spirit to dismiss her mother’s objections nor the wherewithal — or sufficient cause, really — to consult a judge. “It kills me when I talk to these people who say, ‘Well, there’s judicial bypass, so that protects girls with a history of abuse in their homes,’” says Dawn Wilcox, spokeswoman for the Campaign for Teen Safety. “So all the teen has to do is get a lawyer, maneuver the court system and go before a judge. And I say — ‘That’s all?’ If this were to pass and become law, teens wouldn’t understand all the intricacies of it.” Lydia would simply have had a baby.

Proponents of parental notification and consent laws would like that outcome. They point to a study conducted by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank devoted to stripping women of their reproductive rights, showing a modest decline in abortion rates in states like Minnesota and Texas. Cynthia Dailard, a senior public policy analyst with the pro-reproductive-rights Alan Guttmacher Institute, claims the study is flawed because it doesn’t take into account the number of girls who travel to get abortions in more lenient states. But even if Heritage has it right, is this what we all want? More 16-year-olds having babies conceived in a haze of hormone-induced bad judgment? It’s likely that the 55 percent of Californians who think Prop. 73 is a good idea don’t all fall into the same category as the referendum’s fanatic benefactors — people like vintner Don Sebastiani, Domino’s Pizza tycoon Tom Monaghan and James Holman, publisher of Catholic fliers like Los Angeles Mission and the less tendentious San Diego Reader, who sank $1.3 million of his own money into 73. More likely they’re like one father I know, whom I overheard saying to another father, “Would you want your daughter to have an abortion without telling you?”

And I wanted to say, "Of course not." But a law’s not going to help.

“I’m the mother of a teenage daughter,” says Diane Medsker, the parent education coordinator for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. “She’s 15. And I honestly don’t know whether she would tell me if she got pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.” If good communication fails between many perplexed parents and their sometimes diffident teenagers, Medsker says, it fails even more often when the conversation comes around to sex. “From working in the middle schools and high schools, I know the questions kids ask, and the issues they’re struggling with. And my sense is that lots of kids who have good relationships with their parents are reluctant to talk about sex. And I’m not just talking about teens from abusive families — I’m talking about kids from good homes with supportive families.

“Adults need to be careful about assuming certain things about teenagers,” says Medsker. “Teenagers aren’t predictable.”

For the record, Claire Medsker, who hasn’t started having sex, says her mom would be the first one she’d tell if she got pregnant. “It would still be a really hard topic. And it would change some things in our relationship. But my mom does work at Planned Parenthood, after all,” she says. She’s not sure about the other kids in her school. She does know some have sex, though, because, since everyone knows where her mom works, “they ask me to get them condoms.”

“And can you get them?” I asked her.

“Yeah,” she laughs. “I can.”

In the high schools she visits, Medsker finds most kids don’t know that you can already get an abortion without your parents’ permission. And when the time comes to field anonymous questions, “a common one that comes up is, ‘What other ways are there to end a pregnancy?’ They’re already looking for other ways out — for that magical thing that’s not going to involve adults and that’s going to make everything easier.” It offers a chilling clue, perhaps, to what they’d do if they got pregnant and had to tell their parents.

On Friday, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion opposing Prop. 73, saying that it wasn’t so much about “helping teenage girls and their families,” but about “chipping away at Roe v. Wade.” “I don’t think we want to enact a law here in California that would push girls to seek back-alley abortions,” Councilman Eric Garcetti said in a statement.

True enough: Among the most vociferous opponents of parental-notification and -consent laws stand Indiana parents Karen and Bill Bell, whose teenage daughter, Becky, died in 1988 of a botched abortion obtained without their knowledge in a parental-notification state. But there is also the much more mundane story of Lydia, who thinks that maybe one day, after she graduates from high school with decent grades, she might go to cosmetology school, where she can learn to be a makeup artist — something that she believes she would not have been able to do as a single mom.

“Even though we’re young and not legally adults,” Lydia told me, “we should have control over what we do with our own bodies. Turning 18 is not becoming a woman. It doesn’t make you a woman, and it doesn’t make you any smarter. It’s just a piece of paper. Look at how many girls over 18 get pregnant and have abortions. If we can have babies, why should we not have the same rights?

“If you’re going to have sex, use birth control,” advises Lydia. “But if you have sex and you don’t use birth control, and you get pregnant, you should still be allowed to decide what to do without your parents knowing. Because it’s your life.”


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