Editor’s Note: This piece has been changed from its original to replace “consent” with “notification” in paragraph four. We regret the error.
Last week I traveled from St. Louis Missouri to beautiful Anchorage, Alaska to volunteer with the No on 2 Campaign and help Alaskans fight a proposed parental notification ballot measure. On Tuesday August 24, 2010 Alaskans voted in favor of the parental notification measure by a ratio of 55 percent to 45 percent. Even in pro-choice communities parental notification measures are challenging and people often find themselves torn between parental rights and the rights of teens. Five days on the ground talking to voters in Anchorage, Alaska really drove home what’s at stake for reproductive justice, voters and for Alaskan teens.
At first glance parental notification seems so simple – adults like the idea of knowing what’s going on in the lives of teens. The good thing is that most teens, including Alaskan teens, do communicate with their parents. But some teens in abusive family situations would face serious harm should their parents be notified of their pregnancy. Parental notification mandates don’t discriminate and so-called safeguards like judicial by-passes are all too often better in theory than practice.
Alaskans Against Government Mandates is a coalition of teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, Planned Parenthood supporters, faith leaders and other Alaskans who joined together in hope of defeating Ballot Measure 2. Alaskans from all walks of life oppose parental notification because they agreed that it was an unnecessary abortion restriction that would put teens at risk while doing nothing to reduce unplanned teen pregnancies.
By approving Ballot Measure 2, also known as The Alaska Parental Involvement Act, a majority of Alaskan voters decided to forbid any minor from getting an abortion without a doctor informing at least one parent before moving forward with the procedure. The proposal also included enforcing legal penalties on doctors who perform abortions on minors without notification of the minor’s parents. Ballot Measure 2 allows the minor to go to court to authorize an abortion without giving notice to her parent or guardian. This is commonly referred to as a judicial by-pass.
While volunteering in Alaska I participated in phone banks and door-to-door canvassing and I talked to a lot of Alaskan voters. Many of those voters who were undecided on the parental notification issue pointed to the judicial bypass as an option for teens who would be put at risk should their parents be notified of their pregnancy and choose to seek abortion services. When I explained the judicial bypass procedure to these voters they were often surprised at how complex and uncertain it really is. A minor can’t just show up at court and casually secure a judicial bypass. As Ballot Measure 2 reads, the minor could ask the court to excuse her from school to attend the hearings and to have the abortion. The court could direct the school not to tell the minor’s parent or guardian of the minor’s pregnancy, abortion, or absence from school. The bill allows a minor who is a victim of abuse by her parent or guardian to get an abortion without notice or consent. To do this, the minor and an adult relative or authorized official with personal knowledge of the abuse must sign a notarized statement about the abuse.
I walked undecided voters through the reality of that process for Alaskan teens, many of whom live in rural communities. We discussed the fact that court is not required to excuse a minor from school and what it would mean for a teen if the court denies that initial request. We talked about the fact that the court is not required to keep the teens request confidential. “Could” is not the same as “must”, and it is a valid concern that under this new law courts can notify parents that their teen has requested a judicial bypass. If that teen is a survivor of abuse by a parent, that means that their abuser would be notified that the victim sought a judicial by-pass and that puts the teen at risk.
Beyond the obvious daunting hurdles within the process of parental notification there is the reality of abuse in Alaska. On phone call after phone call I talked to Alaskan voters about the fact that Alaska ranks fifth in the nation for the prevalence of child victimization, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. Alaska has some of the nation’s highest rates of family violence. Alaskan rape statistics are some of the highest in the country. The voters I spoke to knew these facts and the impact violence and neglect have on their community. Many were swayed to vote no on measure 2 when they thought through how the law would impact the lives of at-risk teens, but some were not. The No on 2 Campaign was able to close a huge gap, going from a nearly 30 point spread to within 10 points of defeating the parental notification abortion restriction.
While in Anchorage I met some amazing activists who will be there for Alaskan teens who now face the ramifications of this new law. It was an honor to volunteer with so many concerned Alaskans who gave the No on 2 Campaign their all and who, as a result, educated their community on the need to focus on teen health and child welfare rather than abortion restrictions. Reproductive health care advocates will now work with the court system to help develop legal ways to assist teens within the challenging parameters of the new law.
Alaska is stunningly beautiful, with majestic mountains and breathtaking views. The people I met are hard working regular folk, diverse and strong and proud. The activists I met were dedicated and determined to stand up for at-risk teens in their community. I came back home knowing that we fought the good fight and that the struggle to protect and defend reproductive justice will continue in Alaska.
Alaska’s parental notification measure will become law in a few months. Reproductive justice advocates vow to be there for teens seeking to access the full range of reproductive health care options, including abortion services. In a statement issued after the election Christine Charbonneau, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, said –
“Last night, Alaska’s voters passed an initiative that will require teens under the age of 18 to notify their parents should they want an abortion. While we are very disappointed that we lost, the closeness of the results indicate that many Alaskans, like us, are worried about the danger laws like this pose to our most vulnerable teens. Make no mistake, Planned Parenthood will do everything legally possible to protect these vulnerable teens under this new law. Our doors will remain open to all women and men, regardless of age, who need reproductive health services.”
Doctors, counselors and Alaskan teens who are wondering how this law might affect them should visit www.teenpregnancysupport.com.