Laws requiring parental involvement in minors’ abortions—promoted by their proponents as a way of encouraging parent-child communication and lowering the teen abortion rate—appear to do little to reduce teen abortion or pregnancy rates, according to a new comprehensive review of published research on the effects of such laws. Moreover, there is no evidence that shows whether these laws affect parent-child communication, but there is some evidence that they may cause real harm to teens.
Currently, 34 states have laws in effect that mandate parental involvement in minors’ abortions. The new analysis suggests that while having little impact on the abortion rate, these laws force many teens to navigate complicated judicial bypass systems to obtain waivers or to seek abortions in a state without parental involvement requirements. These barriers delay access to the procedure, reducing safety and resulting in later, more costly abortions.
"Most teens—regardless of whether or not they live in a state with a parental involvement law— do involve their parents when deciding whether to have an abortion. But the reality is you can’t legislate good parent-child communication,” says Amanda Dennis, project manager at Ibis Reproductive Health and lead author of the review. “If we want to protect young women’s health and safety, access to confidential reproductive health services—both contraception and abortion—is critical."
Previous Guttmacher research found that 60% of minors who have an abortion talk to their parents about their pregnancy and desire to have an abortion. However, many among the 40% whose parents do not know about their pregnancy report they would experience physical violence or abuse if their parents knew. For these teens, mandating parental involvement can have serious and damaging consequences.
Moreover, the review’s authors concluded that, in at least one state, parental involvement laws led to an increase in teen birthrates, because teens were unable to travel the long distances necessary to access abortion services out of state. This example indicates that if more states enact these restrictions, teens would either be faced with greater challenges in accessing a provider in a state without parental involvement law or would have an unwanted birth, neither of which is a good option.
Research shows that what does make a difference in lowering minors’ abortion rates is helping teens prevent unintended pregnancies through medically accurate sex education and better access to effective contraceptives.
“We know that the significant declines in minors’ abortion rates over the past two decades are largely the result of declines in their pregnancy rates,” says Dennis. “In turn, the major factor driving down teen pregnancy rates was better use of contraceptives.”
Even making abortion illegal does not reduce the abortion rate, it only makes it more difficult to obtain and less safe. According to worldwide abortion research, the lowest abortion rates are in Western Europe, where contraceptive services and use are widespread, and safe abortion is easily accessible and legal under broad grounds. By contrast, Africa, Asia and Latin America have the highest abortion rates, even though abortion is generally restricted and often unsafe.
“The United States would do well to follow the Western European example,” says Ibis president Kelly Blanchard. “Medically accurate sex education and access to contraception is the norm, and it results in lower rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion among teens. That is a goal we should all support.”
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The Impact of Laws Requiring Parental Involvement for Abortion: A Literature Review, by Amanda Dennis of Ibis Reproductive Health, Stanley Henshaw of the Guttmacher Institute, Theodore J. Joyce of Baruch College, Lawrence B. Finer of the Guttmacher Institute and Kelly Blanchard of Ibis Reproductive Health.