Published in The Enterprise, 10-13-97

Parental Notification in the Real World

by Rocky Anderson

Some of our Congress people are willing to look at the real world and try earnestly to find solutions to the difficult problems facing our nation. Others simply seek political advantage by avoiding the tough issues and relying on opinion polls as their ultimate guidance. The distinction is apparent every time the U.S. Congress or the Utah Legislature deals with issues involving sexuality.

The latest illustration of the courageous-leadership/cowardly-pandering dichotomy is the recent conflict in the U.S. House of Representatives over whether federally-funded clinics should be required to notify parents before providing contraceptives to minors.

Issues like this are often driven by an anecdote guaranteed to arouse strong emotions. In this case, the story is about a 13-year-old girl in a Chicago suburb who was seduced by her 37-year-old former junior high gym teacher. The teacher had sexual intercourse with the child over the course of 18 months. Hoping to avoid pregnancy, but not wanting to continue using condoms, the teacher took the child to a family-planning clinic, where the girl was administered injections of Depo-Provera. The girl’s parents were not notified.

According to those who would impose a notification requirement on clinics receiving funding from the federal government, the clinic facilitated the crimes being committed by the teacher. (But not even the proponents of a notification requirement contend that the teacher would have stopped his misconduct had the clinic’s services been unavailable. And, of course, anyone who learns of a man having sex with a 13-year-old girl should report him immediately to law enforcement officials.) Notification advocates also lament that parents must give permission for their children to receive aspirin at school but aren’t even notified when family planning clinics provide them with contraceptives. (These advocates apparently haven’t asked why the parents of a 13-year-old girl didn’t know she was hanging around a 37-year-old man for 1 ½ years.)

In a perfect world, no man would commit such horrible crimes against a child. And, in a perfect world, minors would not be engaging in sexual activity; they would have open, constructive communication with their parents about sex and everything else; and no unwed teen mothers would be giving birth to unwanted and unplanned babies.

But the hard truth is that many teens, some of them still children, are, and will continue to be, sexually active. Many of them become pregnant. And many of their babies are neglected and abused by parents who are not ready to raise children. More demagoguery will not prevent the tragedy of children having children- or of children having abortions.

Getting past all the feel-good sentiments of those who preach “family values”, what good would be served by requiring parental notification before providing contraceptives to minors? And what are the possible downsides of such a requirement?

In voicing his support for requiring parental notification before contraceptives are provided to minors, Merrill Cook provided his version of reality: “[I]f you take the whole universe of young teenagers, notification will lower the numbers of unwanted pregnancies, lower the number of abortions and lower the amount of premarital sexual activity that is going on.”

I ran against Cook in the last congressional election in Utah’s Second Congressional district and often asked him during the campaign, “Merrill, where did you get that? Do you just make this stuff up as you go along?” I had hoped that such inquiries would no longer be necessary after he was elected and he had an office staff, the Library of Congress, and numerous other tax-supported research resources available to him. However, one is compelled to ask Cook, in connection with his conclusions about the wonderful benefits of parental notification, “Are you still just making this stuff up?”

The hard truth – which our political leaders should honestly address – is that many teens are sexually active and are not discussing their sex lives with their parents. There are more than one million teen pregnancies each year in this country. About one-half of those end in abortion. According to one study provided to Congress (which, apparently, Rep. Cook would prefer to disregard), 80 percent of minors would not go to health clinics for contraception if they were forced to tell their parents. One other fact that can’t be overlooked: the vast majority of teens who go to health clinics for birth control purposes have been sexually active long before they sought contraceptive services.

We can’t mandate – but we can encourage – sexual abstinence by teens and good communication between parents and their children. By mandating parental notification by health care clinics before they can provide birth control services to minors, we would drive sexually active teens away from family-planning clinics, thereby increasing the incidence of AIDS and causing more unplanned pregnancies, more unwanted babies, and more abortions.

Quite a result from the agenda of the “pro-family” folks in Congress.