Yes on 4, the group
latest parental notification ballot initiative, calls it "Sarah’s Law."
Voters in California are being asked to approve or reject an
amendment to the California
constitution that mandates a doctor notify an unemancipated minor’s parents, in
the form of written notification, 48 hours prior to the young woman undergoing
The Yes on 4 campaign, as the anti-choice movement is wont
to do, relies on the power of personal dramatic storytelling to sell the
initiative. "Sarah" is the pseudonym for a 15-year-old teen who died in 1994 of
complications resulting from a post-abortion infection. The campaign asserts
that if "Sarah"s" family had known of her abortion, they would have been able
to step in sooner to help her access emergency care, saving her life. But the
story has been completely debunked. According to the Los Angeles Times, and as Scott
on this site, "Sarah’s" death could not have been prevented by passage of
this law. In fact, "Sarah" was a young woman who was 1) already emancipated
from her parents and 2) not a resident of California, therefore not covered under the
And while the opposition campaign, Campaign for Teen Safety, lobbied to have
the story stricken from ballot guides in August of this year, a Sacramento judge ruled
that the name and description of the measure could remain on the official
ballot guides, citing the rule that ballot initiative language can engage in
"hyperbole" to make its case.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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The proposed amendment, while mandating notification of
parents of minors, does offer exceptions. If a young woman wishes to notify an
adult who is not her legal guardian or to bypass notification altogether, she
needs to write a letter to a judge outlining the reasons why she feels her parents
are unfit to be notified and detailing the "abuse" at the hands of her
parent(s). Then, she must stand before a
court, explain her pregnancy and the abuse issues, and finally, obtain written
notification from the alternate adult if the judge allows.
Ask Alvin Rhomberg, a spokesperson for the Yes on 4
campaign (funded almost entirely by two conservative religious businessmen, Jim
Holman and Don Sebastiani), why this initiative is needed and he’ll use the
opportunity to focus on sexual predators and "secret abortions." Rhomberg says
the proposition is critical because Planned Parenthood "conceals sexual
predators" by not reporting instances when minors visit their clinics and cite
pregnancy as a result of a rape or sexual assault by an older male. The home
page of the campaign web site warns, "On a daily basis, older men exploit young girls
and use secret abortions to cover up their crimes."
It’s a claim backed up by no verifiable statistics and one
that makes little sense if you think for a moment about the relationship
between providers and their patients.
For providers, the first step when hearing claims of rape or sexual assault
is to investigate it with the young woman herself. In fact, "reporting" these
claims without the consent of the patient would violate doctor/patient
confidentiality. And this sexual predator scenario simply does not ring true
with health care providers themselves.
Peg Johnston, Executive Director of Southern Tier Women’s Services, and
founder of a web site that encourages communication between young women and
their parents, Mom,
Dad, I’m Pregnant, says, "In my 27 years of practice I cannot remember one
case that would fit the sexual predator scenario."
The Yes on 4 campaign has used the fear to their advantage.
First there’s the YouTube video featuring the story of what they say is a "14
year old girl who was raped repeatedly by a 39 year old male" taken to Planned
Parenthood twice, but the clinic never reported the "predator." Additionally, the campaign has used the
support of two California District Attorneys – Rod Pacheco and Tony Rackauckas
– to focus attention on the sexual predator scenario. Rhomberg tells me that
Pacheco "was on the show To Catch A Predator, where they lure the sexual
predators to catch them. He was the first to cooperate and said he would have
all of the sexual predators arrested and prosecuted." Rhomberg goes on to say
that California is "experiencing increasing activity of this kind because of
the internet, cell phones and coaches…and one thing this initiative has done is
bring these issues to light."
But the No on 4 campaign dismantles the YouTube
story and reveals not only how the law would not have protected the 14
year-old teen but, in fact, would have likely victimized her again:
The man was the teen’s stepfather, who married the teen’s
mother when she was 3. He acted as a father to her. The relationship was
therefore incestuous…She went to Planned Parenthood once, for a pregnancy test,
which was positive, on September 25, 2002. The teen’s stepfather took her to San Francisco General Hospital on December 17, 2002 for a
surgical abortion. When the stepfather brought the teen to Planned Parenthood, the teen did not reveal that she was having
sex with her stepfather when she had the pregnancy test, so no one at
Planned Parenthood knew the situation.
Similarly, at San Francisco General Hospital, the teen, at
the stepfather’s direction, falsely filled out the admission forms, giving her
age as 14 years, using the stepfather’s last name as her own, and describing
him as her father…Because the teen
represented that the stepfather was her father, under Prop 4, the hospital
staff could (and undoubtedly would) have given him the parental notification
What of the "parental involvement" Proposition 4 wants to
mandate? In California,
the majority of young people (79%) already
talk to their parents about sexual issues. According to studies,
anywhere between 61 -70% of teens nationally involve their parents in their
decision about whether or not to have an abortion. That number skyrockets to
90% in minors 15 years old and younger. When a young woman, 16 years old or
older, chooses not to, there are usually good reasons. According to the ACLU:
One study showed
that 22% of teens who did not tell a parent about their abortion decision
feared that, if they told their parents, they would be kicked out of the house.
More than 8% feared that they would be physically abused because their parents
had beaten them before. Of those who did not tell a parent, 12% did not live
with either parent and 14% had parents who abused drugs or alcohol.
It’s not only about communication with parents though. Abortion
providers would not be doing their jobs if they did not advocate for the health
and well being of their patients – and that usually means encouraging parental
involvement when it’s safe and possible.
"I think that people don’t know that abortion providers
usually encourage parental involvement–it’s just better all around if it’s
possible," says Peg Johnston. "Younger teens almost always involve family and
older teens mostly fear disapproval of their parents." In fact, Peg created the
Mom, Dad, I’m Pregnant project to "help teens tell their parents, and almost
more importantly, to help parents respond in helpful, rather than hurtful
There is nothing in the Prop 4 measure that encourages communication between
parents and their teens. The measure mandates that a physician notify an adult
member of the family – not that a parent and child communicate in any way about
the abortion, the teen’s sexual experiences, or decision making. After studying
the 34 states that mandate parental involvement (or consent), The
Bixby Center found that "There is no evidence that a government mandate
will positively increase the frequency or quality of communication for
adolescents and their families." The Center also found that after comparing
states with parental notification requirements and without, "adolescents
involve their parents in their decision at similar rates…"
But Alvin Rhomberg can offer yet another reason why California is in need of
this measure. He claims that states with parental notification laws "have lower
rates of abortion and STDs" and that "a study by a law professor in Florida" showed that
parental notification laws "caused a statistical reduction in STDs." That’s
a stretch. The Guttmacher
Institute says that’s not what the evidence shows — parental involvement
laws have been shown to increase
the frequency with which adolescents travel out-of-state for abortion
care and do not decrease the pregnancy rate among teens. In some states these
laws have been responsible for increasing the birth rate and unintended
pregnancy rates among this population of young women, in addition to creating dangerous
barriers to health care for our teens.
And if its STD rates among minors that the Yes on 4 campaign
is interested in targeting, why not start with ensuring comprehensive sex ed is
taught in California
schools? Beneficially, young people in California
are able to access confidential care from a provider without parental
notification for contraception and STI prevention methods.
The initiative has been locked in a tight race over these
past few weeks. California
voters have defeated similar measures twice before. The initiative has been
called "deceptive" and "deceitful" and is opposed by the major associations
teachers, social workers, nurses, medical providers and advocates across the
board. And while 75% of those who are voting for the measure say
they are doing so because they believe "parents have the right to know about
their daughter’s abortion," the truth is that they may be looking to the
government for something the government is in no place to offer – honest, real
communication between parents and their teens.