Treating Teenagers as People: The Debate Over Adolescent Medical Privacy


Much of the Internet lit up last week either laughing at or debating this story of a Michigan mother named Christy Duffy who went into total meltdown mode upon seeing a sign at the local hospital informing parents that “Michigan Medical Records access laws” require “a nurse to have a 5 minute private conversation with your child.”

Duffy is clearly one of those parents who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes shielding kids from any acknowledgment that sex exists will stifle their desire to have it.

This led to some hilarious full-blown right-wing hysteria. “I had to cut the conversation short because I was not letting my girl out of my eyesight or earshot,” Duffy told One News Now, a Christian right website. “Not when it was clear that these people were angling to undermine my parental authority.”

The levels of self-righteous delusion are truly a wonder to behold. “I am the Mom. I will pick who can talk to my kids about sex and drugs,” Duffy says of her 17-year-old daughter, causing most people who remember being teenagers to laugh at her deluded notions of control. “And rock-n-roll, for that matter,” she added for good measure.

Duffy spun an elaborate conspiracy theory about how the sign was part of grand plan by “the State” to garner control for financial reasons—it’s all pretty hazy, but by way of assuring us that she is perfectly rational, she notes: “I’m not into farming, camping, or living anywhere without serious, made-possible-by-the-grid facilities.” OK.

One News Now included a poll in the article asking its conservative readership how they felt about the story. By far, the most popular choice, at 71 percent, was “Do children belong to the parents…or the state?”

Cue dramatic music.

Sarcasm aside, the popularity of that poll answer should be deeply concerning, since it gets to the heart of one of the most dangerous ideologies peddled by the Christian right regarding the rights of minors. “Do children belong to the parents or the state” should be immediately recognizable as a false choice. Children are human beings and therefore are not property, and they do not “belong” to anyone.

By protecting the rights of minors, the state is not stealing them from their parents. You can’t steal what you didn’t own in the first place.

Yes, we give a lot of decision-making power to parents in our society, but that power should never be confused with ownership. Children’s status as “minors” is an acknowledgement that they are not capable of making all their own decisions yet and need someone to do some of that work for them. However—and this is critical—the idea of raising a child is that you gradually start shifting more and more of the responsibility for decision making from yourself to them. By the time most kids are 17, like Duffy’s daughter, they should be taking enough responsibility for themselves that they can make the transition to living outside of the house with ease when they turn 18, if that’s the best choice for them and their family.

As a child’s responsibilities grow, so should their rights, including the right to privacy. Yes, that includes medical privacy. Ideally, all doctors should be able to have a few minutes alone with children of all ages in situations when they believe screening for child abuse is warranted. But particularly when children become teenagers, they start to have all sorts of valid reasons that their parents should not be in the room with them for a solid chunk of a doctor’s visit. This goes double for children with overbearing parents. What if a teenager is having or is interested in sex and has important questions about staying healthy? Even if you have understanding parents, that can be a hard thing to ask in front of them; if someone like Christy Duffy is your mother, it’s basically impossible. Just for basic health and safety reasons, teenagers deserve a modicum of privacy.

This should all seem like common sense, but as the enthusiasm on the right for Duffy’s story shows, the “ownership” model of parenting—one, it must be pointed out, that is not recognized by the government, which absolutely does not allow you to treat children like property—collapses the difference between the rights and responsibilities of a toddler and those of a teenager. It stops being about what’s best for a child’s development into a grown adult and instead imagines children as nothing but vessels for the parental ego. Taken too far, you start to see cases like the Florida woman who kidnapped her own child in order to prevent her from being vaccinated and from being educated in a public school—in that case, the mother feared her daughter might unlearn some of the racist hatred she had been pouring in her ear.

In the particular case of Christy Duffy, and her overwhelming control issues regarding her daughter on the cusp of legal adulthood, it turns out that the fit being thrown wasn’t even a reflection of reality. According to the One News Now report, which was written to maximize right-wing reader panic, the hospital in question was just trying to clean up its medical records system and was not actually implementing some catch-all “separate child from parent” strategy. Duffy was conspiracy theory flipping out over a policy that doesn’t seem to actually exist.

But the thing is that policies like this should exist, because children are people, not property.

A real concern right now in our country is that our laws regarding adolescent rights to medical privacy are patchwork and confusing. Ideally, we would have a single, clear set of rights that adolescents enjoy, including the right to private consultation with doctors and the right to have their medical records not be shown to their parents. It should definitely include the right to contraception and abortion without parental notification, much less consent. Having this kind of clarity would go a long way toward reminding conservative parents that their children are people with rights, and not property to be treated however a parent sees fit.

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  • purrtriarchy

    Parents do not own their children.

    And why is no one concerned about male teen sexuality? Oh right, because boys bodies are not property, unlike girls.

    • paganheart

      Indeed. For all the religious right’s bluster about teaching both girls and boys to “save themselves for marriage,” when it comes to boys, such teachings are usually accompanied with a heavy dose of wink-and-nudge “boys will be boys” mentality, which basically tells boys that it really doesn’t matter if they slip up and fornicate before marriage, Jesus will forgive them anyway. (And that evil, wicked, sinful little harlot that you sinned with is probably just as much to blame as you are, if not more; women are evil, inferior creatures who have been tempting men into sin since Eve, after all.) Add to that the fundie belief that women and girls are basically just walking wombs whose only purpose in life is to breed and raise children, and you have an environment where there is little concern about the sexuality of adolescent males among conservative, fundie parents.

      Unless, of course, their adolescent males announce that they are attracted to other males, in which case, you will see all hell break loose. (Pun fully intended…)

  • Ella Warnock

    Duffy’s reaction is pretty much what my mother’s would have been. Of course, I have this long, boring story about her reading my letters from my now-husband and OMGBBQ!!!111!eleventy!!!11 found out I was a perfectly normal, sexually active 21-fucking-year-old. She felt completely entitled, and never met a boundary she didn’t utterly lay to waste. Issues? Yeah, I’ve got ‘em.

    Teenagers are doing a bunch of shit you don’t like and would freak you out, fundie parents. It’s ‘mostly’ harmless. Deal with it, or they’ll just go further underground and sure as shit will not let you know much of a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g about their inner lives. If you’re anything like my mother, you will destroy your relationship in ways that are unalterable and are more painful than anything else you can imagine.

    • DonnaDiva

      I’ve been watching reruns of Too Close for Comfort, a popular early 80s show about a middle aged couple living in the same home with their young adult daughters, and it’s shocking to me how many of the plotlines revolved around the parents (mostly the dad) flipping out over the possibility of them being sexually active and poking around in their private business.

      • Ella Warnock

        My mind is always boggled by young adults living at home. I know that they’re not all experiencing what I did, but it just totally squicks me out. If things had turned out as disastrous as they assured me they would, I’d have worked three or four jobs to avoid moving back into that house.

  • Randie Bencanann

    I grew up in a household where the constant threat of being discovered as a sexually active late teen loomed over me. I believed my father’s threats about “killing me” if he found out I was sexually active. Not that he would actually have “kill me” but that he would make my life pretty miserable. So I never told him anything, lied my way through my senior year in high school and was fortunate enough to be a responsible user of contraception. But if I had gotten pregnant – even accidentally because of faulty contraception, I could NOT have gone to my parents. So when I worked at the Teen Clinic at Planned Parenthood in the 70’s and counseled young women who came in for pregnancy tests, when they said “I can’t tell my parents, they’ll kill me” – I took that seriously. We talked at length about trying to let them know – but these young women did not see it as an option. If we had forced them, they would just have gone underground with their pregnancies – and illegal abortions, abandoned babies – these would have been more common responses to this crisis. I have fought against parental notification in my home state of California and talked with my daughters about contraception, etc. – but when I asked one of them if they would talk with me about an unplanned pregnancy, she said she wasn’t sure – she would be embarrassed and ashamed. My heart sank – if my daughter in a home where these topics were openly discussed did not feel safe, what about all the young women living in homes like the one I grew up in. I get the idea of parents wanting to know about the health of their children,out of live and concern, but some issues need to have a safe arena so that young women can make the best decisions for themselves. After all, if they are pregnant and possibly going to be a parent – aren’t they mature enough to make this decision about their future?

    • Shan

      “but when I asked one of them if they would talk with me about an unplanned pregnancy, she said she wasn’t sure”

      That’s a good wake-up call to parents like me who have been trying to do a good job of teaching their children not to be ashamed of their bodies or their sexuality.

      • lady_black

        That would break my heart to hear something like that from one of my children. They knew I would be their friend when nobody else would be, and they could always come to me. I might not be happy about it, but I would always be of help.

    • DonnaDiva

      Exactly. If you need the state to compel your daughter to tell you something then you are a terrible parent and an awful person on top of that.

      • Shan

        Um. That’s not what this article is about. It’s about the state allowing minors to be able to not to HAVE to tell their parents everything. FFS.

        • DonnaDiva

          Yeah, you are misunderstanding me. I was responding to Randie’s comment where she opposed parental notification. Thanks for editing your previous, unnecessarily rude previous comment, though.

      • lady_black

        I agree, and I also think those kind of parents maybe should NOT be told everything. They can’t handle the truth.

  • lady_black

    I feel SO sorry for this person’s daughter.

    • Shan

      Ugh, so do I. My dad took me to get fixed up with BC when I asked and was certainly NOT in the exam room for any of it.

      • lady_black

        Your dad was very wise. Kudos to him. I grew up in the same kind of home where I could go to my mom and tell her I needed birth control pills (in the seventies no less). My whole circle of female friends either were pregnant in high school or shortly afterward. These weren’t bad girls, but they couldn’t go to their parents. Very sad. This poor girl will have her harpy mother hovering over her like a helicopter, long into adulthood, until she’s finally had enough and cuts her mother out of her life. The mother will wonder what she did wrong, because she missed the entire point of being a parent. Which is, of course, to raise an adult and then let it go.

      • redlemon

        My mom claimed that I “gave” my dad depression when he found out I was on the Pill. And I was 18 FFS.

        • Shan

          Aw, geez. Nobody needs that kind of guilt. If your dad was depressive, that was NO way your fault even IF he thought the BC thing made him that way. A healthy dad would have been happy that you were being responsible.

          • redlemon

            My parents are anything but healthy and anything but supportive. It sucked at the time, and I still carry issues like comic books, but I can look back on it now and laugh. And scare the sh*t out of people when I tell stories of my childhood. And it was pretty much the best manual on how NOT to be a parent.

          • Shan

            Well, if it’s any consolation, I think my parents, trying to be all open-like, got it backwards occasionally. I can remember coming home from (non-sex-having) dates to be asked by my dad (who always waited up and ALWAYS enforced an 11pm curfew): “So didja get any?” To which I would just wave a hand and make a face and go directly to bed.

            Either that or they were really good at reverse psychology. After all, they were the ones who took me to their Lamaze classes when I was 13 and my mom was about to have my little sister. There’s nothing like a full monty birthing video to make you permanently convinced that boys have cooties.

          • lady_black

            Giving my kids diaper duty when I was babysitting my niece helped a lot with that too. LOL. My son especially was not interested in making any babies.

        • lady_black

          He should have been delighted about raising such a responsible daughter! I had a conniption when I found out my son had unprotected sex with a “questionable” partner when he was in his 20s and in the Navy. I asked him if he had a death wish, and gave him the safe sex lecture again. He agreed he used poor judgment.

          • redlemon

            Of course he should have, but to my parents, sex was always bad. Always. BC causes abortions, dontcha know? The funny thing to me was that I wasn’t really even taking it for sex as much as I have very dysfunctional periods with lots of pain.

            When I moved in with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, my mom gave me a weighty, solemn lecture on how I was going to hell for having premarital sex. In contrast, my in-laws bought us a bed. I like my in-laws.

          • lady_black

            No wonder he was depressed. Believing sex is “bad” sounds pretty depressing to me. He sounds like my Nana, who was forever making remarks about how I was “shacking up” when I moved in with my boyfriend (now husband). I always just laughed it off as Nana being Nana. We’ve been married 27 years now.

          • redlemon

            My parents were just afraid of everything and their fear led to anger and hate. Everything was to be feared. Treading down any “wrong” path would mean an automatic downward spiral into absolute destruction, kind of like how weed will supposedly suddenly lead to heroin. I honestly think my parent’s depression stemmed from the fact that people could make a different choice and their lives weren’t automatically screwed up. My mom seemed so mad that my “shacking up” didn’t teach me a lesson and that it had led to a pretty darn good 8 year marriage. My dad is absolutely horrified that my drinking (as in, I drink alcohol in a responsible manner) hasn’t led to my husband divorcing me and me being a homeless alcoholic in the middle of Detroit.

          • Ella Warnock

            Good grief, we grew up in the same house.

          • redlemon

            Aw, I’m sorry. It truly sucks.

          • lady_black

            I have no frame of reference for what it must be like to grow up in a family like that. I’m very sorry, it must be awful. Now I understand why some people have issues. How could they NOT have issues with parents who are fear-based and get angry because you *didn’t* screw your life up. I have to wonder what sort of horror your parents grew up in. I also feel sorry for them in a way.

          • redlemon

            I think the anger around me not screwing up my life is more or less directed at the fact that their worldview failed them but they take it out on my brother and I. Of course, that doesn’t make it any better for me or my brother.

            I know the horror my dad grew up in. He was born nine months after my grandparents- one being a Holocaust survivor- got off the boat and spoke no English. He had a rough life that eventually ended up with him getting on the Jesus bus (literally and figuratively) and he clung to religion and the Just World fallacy. As for my mom, she was also the daughter of immigrants, but her parents were much less helpless, knew English, were highly educated, and never had the same problems. The only thing I can come up with on her side is that she was/is jealous of her sister, has lots of medical issues and she’s afraid of doctors, she didn’t like parenting but her religion had her stay at home, and that depression/anxiety run on that side of the family.

            I’ve often felt sorry for them but they are toxic and I had to eventually cut them out of my life when they started introducing the toxic to my daughter. I wish they could do some introspection into themselves but they don’t want to do so, I can’t force them, so I can only work on myself and make sure I don’t follow that path with my own daughter.

          • Shan

            ((hugs)) redlemon. I have family issues that have gone the same way with needing to excise the toxic in order to remain healthy.

          • lady_black

            That’s the reason I see my biological father as few times as possible. He’s a bit on the toxic side, and has bi-polar to boot. His wife is a saint to put up with him, and I call her often. With him, I never know what person I’ll be talking to.

          • lady_black

            Of course their anger is because their worldview failed them. Good that you recognize that and don’t take it personally. Just because I feel sorry for them doesn’t mean I’d hang around with them either. I don’t blame you for not allowing their issues to hurt your daughter. :)

          • redlemon

            Oh, it took me a long time to get to that point. A good decade of therapy. Sometimes I sit down and I do feel sorry for them but then I remember that both of their children do not talk to them. A person who truly wants to change would look at that and ask themselves what they possibly could have done to create that sort of situation. I’m no saint in my family, but I have always tried to make amends and my brother still talks to me.

  • purrtriarchy

    Good article about s1ut shaming…since female purity has been a constant topic the last few weeks..
    http://www.alternet.org/gender/what-makes-slut-apparently-just-being-woman

  • Jennifer Jonsson

    When a teen pregnancy cropped up in my household, my mother went into a full-on meltdown, but not because of religion. She freaked out because of “how bad this would look” to all of her friends. To which I can only say, uh, that’s sad.

  • fiona64

    I remain dumbfounded that *anyone* questions that there is a need for teens to have some medical privacy. There is no other way to tell a medical professional that there is a problem at home, just to name one example … let alone anything about being sexually active.

    • KristenfromMA

      Exactly. I’m an adult, and when I go to the doctor, one of the first questions the nurse will ask is, “Are you safe at home?”

    • nothanx

      Unfortunately the point you’re making is exactly why some of these parents are terrified of their kids being alone with another adult, ever. They’re afraid CPS is going to “take away their kids” because they exercise their “biblical”/”parental right” (or “duty,” depending on who you ask) to “spank.” The idea that “spanking” is necessary combined with the idea that CPS/the government is out to get you and wants to take away your children is unfortunately rather common in Christian-themed family & parenting related books and publications. Concerns about sexuality and “parents’ rights” regarding teaching morality are the most socially acceptable logic for this kind of thing so that’s what you’ll hear about more, but in the minds of many of the parents who advocate this position, protecting their “right” to do things which (at the very least) border on abuse and fear of being accused of abuse is the primary underlying concern (and is more important to them than protecting children who are being abused).

  • ypochris

    The concern goes well beyond the ability of young men and women to discuss their sexuality, and possible need for contraception or treatment, with a medical professional in a safe environment. What about the child that is being physically or sexually abused in the home? Certainly the abusive parents would do anything in their power to prevent those children from having time alone with a doctor. Should this be countenanced? How do we know which parents are trying to prevent their children from gaining knowledge, and which are trying to prevent their children from imparting knowledge?

  • nightshade

    I certainly understand the need some kids have for medical privacy; I was very fortunate that my parents were realistic, if not exactly open-minded. Their attitude was “we’d rather you didn’t, but if you do, at least tell mom so she can get you on birth control first.” I was the same way with my daughter, if more blunt about it (it seems to have worked). But – and I’m not trying to bait the bear here – there is that not-so-little matter of payment. If your daughter wants to get on BC, and is too nervous to mention it in front of mom, well, mom’s going to find out when she gets the bill. If the girl goes on her own to the local Planned Parenthood, that’s one thing, but a regular visit to the family doctor is going to blow it straight out of the water. Medical bills are itemized (and should be, it’s the only way to keep from getting ripped off), so what happens when that private discussion becomes a line item for contraceptives on the bill? For that matter, if the daughter wants/needs an abortion, who pays if she doesn’t want to – or is in a situation where she can’t – tell her parents?

    • nothanx

      I actually had a variety of reproductive health treatments while on my parents’ insurance as a minor, so I’ve got some experience here. [I had very problematic periods – like, they were so bad I became anemic and it was interfering with my ability to go to school problematic – but my family was anti-BC and my mom was somewhat abusive so discussing it with them wasn’t really much of an option].

      It varies between states, but in the state I was in, after a certain age (I think it was 14? maybe 16) my parents actually didn’t get the bill for my medical care. The bill would come in my name, or I could just pick the bill up at the location where i received care (so they’d never see it at all), and I could give specific instructions on what could and could not be verbally shared with my parents. The insurance company wasn’t allowed to disclose specifics except to the individual who received care, either – so my mom could call and ask how much of my deductible had been met, but they couldn’t tell her what care I had received to meet it (which absolutely infuriated her, but she blamed the government instead of lashing out at me for using contraceptives). So the bill might be itemized, sure, but (at least in some states) once you get into your teens your parents won’t ever see it unless you choose to show it to them.

      In the hypothetical abortion situation, I think you already identified the solution – Planned Parenthood, or another clinic which uses a sliding-scale fee system. You just fill out the paperwork with your information on it, they verify your income & assets (which for most teens will be little to nothing), and you get billed based on what you can afford – so, for minors most of the time, $0.

      If you’re in an area where you have to go to the hospital for a procedure (as you do in quite a few states now) however, in my experience you’re pretty much screwed. Even though they’re supposed to follow a lot of the same rules, your information is going through a lot more hands and requests for privacy are more likely to get lost.

      • nightshade

        I hadn’t even considered sending the bill to the teenager herself, or that the insurance company can refuse to answer after a certain age, beyond meeting the deductible – which I think is 16 in my state. That worries me about girls younger than that, given the Bible belt mentality in this area – and the appalling ignorance it spawns.

  • Ashley Bell

    My thinking is that you would WANT to encourage a child’s patient-doctor privacy early on. In addition to the obvious, it also teaches kids how to talk to other adults and how and where to seek the kinds of help they may need when they finally leave the nest. I was up in Brooklny last month and deluightfully watched a young mom and dad sending their kids down the street on various occasions to buy them their coffee and bagels…A very nice light encouragment for the kinds of micro-adventures that really mean alot to kids that age. (they were around 8 or 9). I’ve also seen on other occasions in completely safe environments where parents practically have thire kid on a leash and the tone of their voice relaying to the kid that the world is dangerous and everyone wants to hurt you…sad

  • Ms. Pris

    “the “ownership” model of parenting—one, it must be pointed out, that is
    not recognized by the government, which absolutely does not allow you to
    treat children like property”

    Um, I was under the impression that Ms. Marcotte lives in the US. The governments in the US most certainly DO allow parents to treat children like property and in general presumes that they ARE the property of their parents.

    • kitler

      Pro lifers, especially, view children as property.