We must protect access to abortion for teens

In a country where reproductive rights are under attack from every conceivable angle, there’s a group that sometimes gets left out of the discussion: Teens, particularly girls. There’s a focus on the fact that we’ve successfully pushed teen pregnancy rates down, which is definitely a good thing, and there’s an important discussion about access to comprehensive, quality, accurate sexual education for children and teens who need a better chance than what many of us are giving them. But there’s a reluctance to talk about a specific subject: Abortion among teens.

Those conversations are definitely happening, especially among locales that are heavily focused on reproductive rights, but I’m not seeing them as much in the mainstream, and this troubles me. The reasons people shy away from abortion for teens are likely myriad and complex — a lot of them tie into prudery, though, and dislike of the idea that teens are having sex, let alone unprotected sex. Unfairly, some people argue that teens should ‘know better’ in the 21st century, despite the fact they can’t access the sexual education and tools to prevent pregnancy, especially in conservative communities.

Even with every imaginable precaution, even with the best sex ed in the world, some teens are going to end up pregnant, just like adults do. And some of them are going to decide that they do not want to be pregnant any more, and they are going to seek access to abortions in order to address that problem. Like adults, they should be able to receive abortion care as a basic medical treatment to address an issue, and as a psychological matter — being pregnant when you do not want to be is stressful, upsetting, and traumatic, particularly among youth.

Being pregnant at any age comes with serious, life-changing consequences. Even when babies are expected and planned for and parents are excited about them, there’s a lot of preparation to do. There’s a lot of fundamental lifestyle shifting, as what was once normal can no longer be. Teens, though, face other barriers. Having a baby at an extremely young age means completely retooling your life if you intend to carry the pregnancy and raise the child yourself — many teens end up as single parents without access to higher education and other social supports because society does not value parents and children. Foetuses, yes, but actual living babies, no. Those who decide to give their children up for adoption face other complicated emotional and social issues.

Yet, teens, like all minors, effectively have no control over their bodies and medical decisions under the law. Parents essentially own their children’s bodies, and can compel them into a variety of medical treatments (e.g. repeat rounds of chemotherapy for a child who wants to withdraw treatment) or do just the opposite, forcing them to not get medical treatments. The laws surrounding abortion in nearly every state are extremely complicated, in most cases deliberately calculated to created a tangled maze for teens who want abortions but don’t know how to get them.

Getting an abortion should be as straightforward as going to a clinic or hospital, discussing the situation with a doctor, receiving any tests or screening (including a pregnancy test) the doctor deems relevant, affirming that you want the procedure, and getting it. In many states, though, barriers including the need for repeat appointments, forcible ultrasounds, ‘counseling’ that includes straight-up lies about abortion, and the like create a situation where pregnant people have no idea what to do. The goal of all of these laws is to push patients to decide against abortion, and to shame them if they decide to go through the procedure.

Teens are confronted with the same tactics, and more. Many states have parental notification and/or consent laws, in which their parents must be notified and agree to a request for an abortion — as a teen, I got birth control privately and the clinic didn’t insist that my father needed to know, something all teens should be entitled to for all reproductive health care. In some, both parents must consent, even if they’re separated. Some allow for a judicial bypass, or give emancipated minors the right to abortions without interference. Some force teens to go to humiliating ‘courts’ where someone argues on behalf of the foetus as though it’s a human being.

All of these laws work to shame teens who just want access to abortion. And many are effective, because teens are frightened, unsure, and unable to advocate for themselves. This society does not treat children and teens as people capable of exercising their own rights, and it really shows in the context of abortion care. Many teens most at risk of pregnancy are in conservative states, where the strictest laws reside.

Parental consent in particular is troubling, as teens may be seeking abortions because of molestation, and requiring teens to ask their molesters for permission to get abortions is horrific. Even in supportive families where parents believe their children should have bodily autonomy, it’s a troubling precedent. Even worse, many physicians and crisis pregnancy centers lie to their patients — physicians because the law forces them to, and CPCs because that’s how they operate. Teens may be led to believe that they will have depression, future fertility problems, and a host of other issues, and some leverage religious beliefs as well, threatening Christian teens with the loss of G-d’s love.

Restricting access to abortion in any sense is unacceptable, but with teens it carries added risks and concerns, because many struggle to advocate for themselves and do not have the resources to make and defend their own decisions. In a world where teens are treated like objects, it’s up to us to defend their rights — while we work for a world in which they have legal and social autonomy.

Image: Annisa Desi Artrianti, Aldrin Rocky, Flickr