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.