Age of Consent

Lisa had an abortion yesterday, and her parents don't know.
Lisa's only 15. She's the cute young girl next door with long brown hair, a ninth-grade honors student. She's got everything going for her--except, until yesterday, she was pregnant.

She's still confused about the abortion, and having it was not a casual decision.

"I felt bad because there was a baby growing inside of me and I aborted it--not because of what it was doing, but because of my mistake," she says.

And, for better or worse, in Arizona, the law allows Lisa and other girls under the age of 18 to make their own decisions about how to live with that "mistake."

For at least the sixth time in the past decade, the Arizona Legislature is considering legislation that would deny abortions to girls younger than 18 unless they have their parents' permission. And the only alternative to parental consent would be for the girl to convince a judge that she is mature enough to make up her own mind.

The pro-life movement sees parental consent as a parent's "natural right." And, indeed, the antiabortion lobby Right to Life has helped in the drafting of the legislation now being formulated by Senate President John Greene and House Speaker Mark Killian.

The pro-choice people, however, see parental consent as a ploy.
"The reason they come up with these particular bills has nothing to do with protecting children and everything to do with trying to make abortion more difficult to obtain," says Gloria Feldt, executive director of Planned Parenthood.

In 1994 in Arizona, 5,425 girls younger than 18 became pregnant. And of those girls--some as young as 11--998 ended their pregnancies with abortions.

Planned Parenthood caseworkers claim that 90 percent of the girls under 16 tell their parents they're pregnant, as do 60 percent of the 16- and 17-year-olds. And of the remaining girls, at least half come to the abortion clinics with a trusted adult, aunt or uncle, teacher or counselor, older brother or sister, or boyfriend.

"The reality is that most teens do talk to their parents--one or both," Feldt says. "And for those, you don't need a law. For those who won't or can't [talk to their parents], the law won't help them to assure that they get some kind of passionate attention or counseling or support or whatever they need."

The girls who don't tell their parents usually have a reason. Some are afraid of disappointing their parents; others worry that they'll be beaten or kicked out of the house. They're victims of incest or abuse, or worse.

Lisa didn't tell her parents because she feared their reactions.
"I asked my mom one day--because two of my friends are pregnant--what would she do if I got pregnant?" Lisa says. "My mom said that if I ever did, it would be my doing and it would be up to me, and she wouldn't help me out because I'm the one who got there, so I'd have to figure it out."

Her stepfather, Lisa says, "would blow his mind."
Lisa and her boyfriend had talked about keeping the baby because they both felt abortion was wrong, but Lisa felt sure that her stepfather would make her put the baby up for adoption.

Her stepfather has high hopes for Lisa, considers her better than her friends who made the same mistake.

"He just talks about them in disgust," she says, "like their lives are over."

And one of those friends has since split from the boyfriend who got her pregnant, leaving the girl to have the baby by herself.

Lisa already understands abandonment. Her biological father left before she was born.

"I have tried to have contact with him," she says, "but he won't have anything to do with me."

And so she felt that abortion was her only option.
"I have a chance that my mother never had," she says forcefully. "To grow up and be someone and not have to depend on a guy."

In Arizona a minor can buy contraceptives, obtain prenatal care and deliver a baby without parental consent. A minor can put her baby up for adoption without her parents' approval, as well.

Eighteen states now have laws requiring that parents consent or be notified of their daughters' abortions.

Arizona has had its notification and consent laws knocked down three times by the federal courts--yet new bills keep emerging.

"It's chronic," says Representative Becky Jordan, Republican of Glendale.
And, in fact, the 1939 laws criminalizing abortion are still on the books in Arizona, even though they were rendered moot by the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The first parental-notification law hit Arizona in 1982. It was enjoined in 1985, when a girl who was three months shy of her 18th birthday asked the Maricopa County Superior Court for a "judicial bypass" to the law; the judge denied her an abortion.

Her mother was incompetent, her father beat her, and so she lived with her grandmother, who was gravely ill. Somehow, through this dysfunction, the girl was still college-bound--and convinced that she was not ready for children, or for the beating that her father would give her if he found out she was pregnant.

Her judge's decision was the first denial under the 1982 notification law, and the time needed for an appeal would have carried the girl well beyond the first trimester of pregnancy, when it is safest--and most legal--to conduct an abortion.

Phoenix attorney Stan Lubin took her case to federal court and had the notification law enjoined because it compromised the girl's constitutional right to privacy. The girl had her abortion.

"We just made the first trimester," Lubin says.
And as for the current interest in reinstating such laws, he quips, "I have jokingly suggested that we try to amend any bill that comes out and say that parental consent is absolutely required when parental consent was obtained to get pregnant."

In 1987 and 1989, the Legislature again passed consent laws; both were quickly thrown out in federal court for being "constitutionally vague."

Early this year, Representative Jeff Groscost, Republican of Mesa, introduced a parental-consent bill intended to beat the federal rap.

"That bill's language is the model that national Right to Life uses, based on Supreme Court decisions where they have found parental-consent laws to be constitutional," says Judith Connell, legislative director of Arizona Right to Life.

But it went nowhere. Instead, Senate President John Greene and House Speaker Mark Killian plan to combine parental consent with family-planning and teenage-pregnancy-prevention bills, take it up during a special session and require that legislators vote for or against all of those programs as a package.

Neither Killian nor Greene will divulge the contents of the package. Connell, who has helped Killian with the bill's drafting, claims that the language of the parental-consent portion will look similar to the earlier Groscost bill.

Pro-choicers in the Legislature refer to the packaging as "extortion"--forcing pro-choice people to accept parental consent if they want much-needed family-planning and teen-pregnancy funds.

Connell says the logic is just the opposite, that parental consent will help drag those other issues through passage.

"We have the votes for parental consent in the House," she says. "We have the votes in the Senate. We have a governor who will sign parental consent. It's a no-brainer issue. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that mom and dad need to have that authority and need to have their natural rights restored to assist their child in this unexpected pregnancy. It's critical."

Gloria Feldt of Planned Parenthood disagrees as to what is needed.
"We need to have vastly better sexuality education," she says. "We need to have vastly increased information out there in the community to provide for the prevention of unintended pregnancies to begin with and for people to know what their options are if they have unintended pregnancies. We need to ensure that a 12-year-old knows when she has been sexually abused, for young women and men to feel a sense of control over and responsibility for their bodies. That's what enables them to make more responsible decisions about when they're going to have sex and who they're going to have sex with, and to be able to say no.

"A law that mandates parental consent is way after the fact. It's way too late to fix any parent-child communication problems."

Joseph Feldman, manager of counseling and surgical services for Planned Parenthood, says that in his nine years on the job he can recall "hundreds and hundreds of stories told to me by teenage girls."

Some were afraid of being kicked out of the house, others afraid their college plans would be derailed, still others afraid they would lose their parents' respect and trust and love. Last week, one pregnant girl explained to Feldman that her mother had told her she was too young to go to a gynecologist.

By law, abortion clinics, including Planned Parenthood, have to inform their patients on options to abortion. Planned Parenthood offers to help the girls tell their parents.

Feldman worked for Planned Parenthood back in 1987, when the last parental-notification law was in effect.

"I remember sending young kids off with a paper in their hands," he says, meaning that they had chosen to obtain a judicial bypass to avoid telling their parents.

"It's a formidable task to ask a 15-year-old to undergo--to go to court, file a petition, speak to a judge in public and ask for permission to have an abortion. I think it's a lot to ask a young person--and yet they did it."

If the girls are desperate enough, they will go to great lengths.
One of the fears of the pro-choice side is that even the bypass procedures will postpone the girls' search for counseling of any sort, and drive other girls to obtain illegal abortions in their desperation. For those reasons, the American Medical Association opposes parental consent.

In most states with consent or notification laws, the judicial-bypass process amounts to a rubber stamp; in other states, it depends on the political and religious beliefs of the judge.

Studies in Pennsylvania, Missouri and Massachusetts, which all have parental-consent or notification laws, show that pregnant teens travel across state borders in search of abortions rather than submit to the humiliation of having a judge decide if they are mature enough to have an abortion.

Unfortunately, the girls may not have been mature enough to keep from getting pregnant.

"I never thought it could happen to me," says Lisa.
A counselor at the clinic where she had her pregnancy test told Lisa she had better sit down to hear the results. Fear and shame and every other painful emotion washed over her, and she wept.

"I thought to myself, 'How could I be so stupid?'" especially since two of her friends had already gotten pregnant.

The answer may lie in that the girls live in a state whose legislators are writing bills restricting their access to contraceptives and requiring that sex education be limited to the virtues of abstinence.

Lisa's best friend and her boyfriend accompanied her to the abortion clinic. As they sat in the waiting room, a woman who had just undergone the procedure "freaked out," as Lisa describes it, and ran from the clinic sobbing that she had just seen a bucket of blood.

Lisa's friends started to cry, but Lisa steeled herself to do what she had come to do.

Afterward, she felt spent and confused.
"I still don't feel right about what I did," she says. "I don't think abortion should be used as birth control. I would never put myself in a position for that to happen again. It's just so wrong."

But she felt she had to do it.
"I do one day want to have kids," she continues. "But I don't want my kid growing up and being emotionally disabled like I was. Ialways wondered why my dad was never around. What did I do that was so bad? Idon't want my kid to think that, and I don't want my kid to have to go through what I did.

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Michael Kiefer