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Aborting Child Protection
September 30, 2003
by Jennifer Roback Morse

With all the publicity about the harm done by pedophile priests, you might think that people uniformly disapprove of sex between minors and adults. If a 16-year-old boy tells us that he had sex with a priest, we all now agree that the older person exploited him. Evidently, this new consensus does not apply to adult men having sex with under-aged girls in California. At least, not if the girl gets pregnant.

Here is the issue. Health-care personnel are ordinarily mandatory reporters of child abuse. But a recent survey has prompted the question of whether abortion clinics take this responsibility seriously. A woman called Planned Parenthood Clinics across the country and told them that she was 13, and pregnant by her 22-year-old boyfriend. The overwhelming majority of the clinics told her she could come in for an abortion with complete confidentiality; they would not report her boyfriend for statutory rape.

Partially due to the publicity surrounding this nationwide survey, officials on the Los Angeles County board of supervisors have asked California's attorney general, Bill Lockyer to clarify the state's policy regarding the reporting of suspected statutory rape. Do abortion clinics in California have the same responsibility to report possible child abuse, as other health-care workers, therapists, and teachers?

The abortion lobby contends that a "woman's right to choose" requires complete confidentiality. But the issue here isn't what she is going to do about this pregnancy. The issue is whether the state of California should, as a matter of public policy, assume she has "chosen" this particular sexual relationship in any meaningful sense.

If a 14-year-old goes to a clinic, maybe the father of child is the boy next door, a nice kid her own age. But then again, maybe not. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, seven in ten of girls who had sex before age 13 reported that their first sexual experience was unwanted or nonvoluntary. Further, of 15-17 year old sexually active "women," 29 percent have partners who are three-five years older and seven percent have partners six or more years older. Surely there is some age at which the duty to protect the young outweighs the "woman's" right to privacy.

The abortion lobby fears that the child-abuse reporting requirement would become de facto a parental-notification requirement. According to the same Alan Guttmacher report cited earlier, almost 40 percent of minors who have abortions, do so without their parents' knowledge. A requirement to report suspected child abuse would almost certainly lead to her parents' knowledge of her pregnancy. Abortion proponents contend that a requirement for parental notification, even without a requirement for parental consent, is an unacceptable and unconstitutional infringement on "a woman's right to choose."

It is easy to imagine a pregnant teen being embarrassed about her parents finding out. She probably wants the whole situation to just go away. She wants everything to be the way it was before she got pregnant. A secret abortion helps her preserve the illusion that nothing ever happened.

The last line of pro-abortion argument is that she might be afraid of child abuse from her parents. She might fear that her parents would beat her up if they knew she was pregnant. So, we are back to the child-abuse issue, and the responsibility of health-care providers to report it.

But this child-abuse argument is a red herring, a strategic changing of the subject. If a clinic worker, or guidance counselor or teacher, had serious reason to believe that a pregnant girl's parents would assault her, that girl needs more than a confidential abortion. Those adults should call Child Protective Services, as part of their responsibility as mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse. This particular pregnant minor should be in protective custody.

Probably very few girls are in imminent danger of assault by their parents. Surely the most-common reaction of parents is to scream and cry and yell and be really upset. That's unpleasant for a teenager. The thought of avoiding that confrontation might make an abortion seem very appealing. But not every unpleasantness is an act of child abuse. The constitutional right to choose does not require the state of California to protect an under-aged girl from anything potentially disagreeable that might be associated with that choice.

The abortion lobby seems to think even a very young girl is entitled to abort without any adult influence. But honestly, if a 14-year-old girl babysits for your family, you walk her home. If your 13-year-old has to go to the orthodontist, you take her, and wait for her in the waiting room. We wouldn't send a 16-year-old to buy a car or choose a college without any adult guidance. Yet, under the guise of protecting her autonomy, the abortion lobby wants to let her go through the decision to abort, and the abortion itself, completely on her own, with no support from the people who love her. This is not respectful; this is abandoning a young girl at one of the most vulnerable moments of her life.

A set of legal rules that allows secret abortions for any girl, no matter how young, increases the number of abortions performed. It is easy to understand why a chain of abortion clinics wants such rules. Planned Parenthood sells abortion services. They want the demand for their services to be as high as possible. They want the costs associated with getting an abortion (other than their fees) to be as low as possible. The rest of us need not genuflect to Planned Parenthood's combination of economic interests and pro-abortion ideology. An absolutist position against parental notification prevents police notification of child sexual abuse. Surely there is some girl young enough that abortion providers should at least ask her about the age of her partner. If Planned Parenthood can't see this for themselves, the state of California should insist on it. Abortion clinics should be mandatory reporters of child abuse, just like every other health-care provider.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. She is the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work.

This column first appeared in National Review Online. Used by permission of the author.

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