Guest column Carrie Baker: ROE Act protects and respects Massachusetts youth

  • Mass. state Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, seated center, testifies in favor of a proposed bill, called the “Roe Act” by supporters, as Mass. state Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Bristol, seated left, and Mass. state Rep. Jay D. Livingstone, D-Boston, right, look on during a public hearing at the Statehouse, June 17, in Boston. AP PHOTO

Published: 7/29/2019 10:02:19 AM

The Massachusetts Legislature is currently considering the ROE Act, which would protect the health, safety and privacy of young people by relieving the burden of parental consent or judicial bypass for abortion health care.

The Massachusetts parental consent law dates back to 1974, the year after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. The law required parental consent for a minor to obtain an abortion.

A legal challenge to the law went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1979 ruled in the case of Bellotti v Baird that parental involvement laws were constitutional, but only if states provided a bypass mechanism if a young person was not able to obtain parental consent. So Massachusetts adopted a judicial bypass procedure whereby judges may grant abortion access to young people they determine are mature and capable of giving informed consent or otherwise if the abortion is in their best interest.

The 1974 law, which did not require parental consent for any other medical care relating to pregnancy, was not based on any research showing that it would enhance family communication or protect young people’s health. In fact, a recent study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, led by investigators from Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, found that parental consent laws do not significantly increase the likelihood that a young person will consult with their parents about their abortion decision.

According to the study, 77% of minors in Massachusetts talk with their parents about their abortion decision. In fact, the rate of Massachusetts youth consulting their parents about their abortion decision is similar to rates in states without requiring parental consent.

Most of the time, minors use the judicial bypass process when their parents are unavailable — they are medically incapacitated, incarcerated, out of the country, or otherwise unavailable. Often in these cases, young people have communicated with their parents about their decision.

But for young people living in abusive households, disclosing pregnancy can trigger physical or emotional abuse, including direct physical or sexual violence, or being thrown out of the home. In these situations, medical providers are the best adults to help young people navigate this difficult situation, not judges, who have neither the training nor time to counsel young abuse survivors. The judicial bypass requirement does not provide patients with any information that they are not already receiving from their health care provider. And, in fact, there has been only one denial of a bypass request in the 45 years since the law was passed.

While the benefits of the current law are dubious, the harms are significant. According to the Harvard study, the judicial bypass requirement causes significant delays for minors seeking access to abortion care. These delays raise the cost of abortion care, which imposes an increased burden on young people with the least access to financial resources. And while abortion is an extremely safe procedure, delays can increase the risk of complications.

Finally, the law imposes unnecessary stress, anxiety and fear on young people seeking reproductive health care during a vulnerable and challenging time of their lives. According to the lead author of the Harvard study Dr. Elizabeth Janiak, the scientific consensus is that parental involvement laws for young people seeking abortion have a negative public health impact.

The people most harmed by the law are not the 77% who already talk to their parents, but the 23% who can’t, who are typically also the most marginalized and vulnerable young people. According to the Harvard study, minors who use the judicial bypass system are disproportionately young people of color and young people with low incomes.

Young people having to secure judicial bypass were more likely to miss the time period for medication abortion (and hence need a surgical procedure) than young people with parental consent. Massachusetts should remove barriers for the most vulnerable young people seeking to prevent teenage parenthood. The ROE Act helps these marginalized youths increase their safety and reduce their stress at an already stressful time of their life.

Opponents of safe, accessible abortion care like to focus on the rare case of a 12, 13, or 14-year-old seeking abortion without her parents’ involvement. In fact, 99.8% of minors accessing abortion care between 2010 and 2016 in Massachusetts were 16 or 17 years old, according to the Harvard study. Only 11 young people obtaining an abortion were under 16 and 8 of them had parental consent. The remaining 3 used judicial bypass, most likely because their parents were not available.

The ROE Act will increase the likelihood that young people will receive the care they need in a timelier, safer manner with significantly less fear and stress. Please contact your representatives to express your support for the ROE Act today.

Carrie Baker is president of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts, and professor and chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.


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