Like Literacy Tests Before Them, Parental Notification and Consent Laws Are Meant to Punish and Humiliate

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Like Literacy Tests Before Them, Parental Notification and Consent Laws Are Meant to Punish and Humiliate

Amanda Marcotte

Parental notification and consent laws are sold as a public good and as protection for teenagers, but are really only about humiliating and punishing them.

Birmingham, Alabama Planned Parenthood
was put on state probation after an
undercover "sting" operation by anti-choicers discovered that employees seem to
be bending the rules on parental notification for minors. This situation is
incredibly frustrating for people with a non-misogynist values system, because
while we all think it’s stupid for abortion providers to break the law, no
matter how unjust, it’s also hard not to sympathize with workers who struggle
with normal human compassion for young women who are in danger of being forced
to give birth against their will for the crime of being a minor.

It’s also incredibly hard not to get frustrated at the
disingenuous posturing of forced birthers on both parental notification laws
and laws requiring clinics to report sexual abuse of minors. To hear
anti-choicers brag on themselves for supporting these laws and these stings,
you’d think they care about child sexual abuse, statutory rape, and the
well-being of girls. But of course, that can’t really be true for a couple of
reasons. One, they’re not running sting operations in maternity wards, aimed at
turning in hospital staff that doesn’t report statutory rape when minors give
birth. Two, it’s just beyond the pale to suggest that it’s helpful or caring
towards actual victims of sexual assault to force them to give birth against
their will. In fact, I would call that attitude "punishing," or perhaps

And make no mistake. Parental notification and consent laws
may be sold to the public as a way to keep parents in the loop in their
children’s lives and medical decisions, but the real purpose of the laws are to
force teenage girls into unwanted motherhood, full stop. Again, you can see
that this is true because teenage girls are free to bear children without
notifying their parents or getting permission. But it’s more than that. When
you look at how the laws work in real life, it gets even more disturbing how
true it is that this is all about forcing teenage girls to give birth against
their will for the "crime" of having sex outside the bounds prescribed by

It’s interesting that this happened in Alabama, which was
one of the states famous in the past for creating elaborate schemes to deny
black citizens their rights, often without coming out and officially saying so.
And even though federal legislation has wiped away many of those schemes, it’s
important to revisit how these laws worked, because the "legislate for an
official goal while promoting a hard right agenda" method has changed aims, but
has not gone away. For instance, Rachel Maddow recently put
together a report on the pre-1965 laws to prevent black citizens from voting
laws that often were promoted under the misleading term "literacy tests." These
tests were ostensibly to make sure that voters had a basic understanding of
civics in order to vote but they actually existed to make sure that black
citizens couldn’t vote while white citizens passed with flying colors. Black
applicants for voter registration were often asked impossible questions (with
reports of even being asked to guess how many marbles in a jar), and a board of
state officials dedicated to segregation determined subjectively if you passed.
That determination was made not by actual answers to the questions so much as
by the color of your skin.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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I bring this up because while literacy tests are illegal
nowadays, right wing legislators still take delight in writing disingenuous
legislation aimed at destroying people’s basic rights while pretending to do
something else. And parental notification is a stellar example of how a law
masquerading as something intended for the well-being of girls and their
families is actually about maximizing pain and misery for sexually active young
women. This isn’t about the Oppression Olympics or trying to equate one kind of
injustice with another, but that the right wing returns to this bag of
political tricks over and over.

On paper, getting parental permission for an abortion
doesn’t seem like it would be that hard, right? No harder than enrolling a kid
in school, or signing a permission slip for a field trip, right? You’d think,
but in reality, parental notification laws are very good at forcing unwilling
teenagers into motherhood. Because the point of the law is to force childbirth,
the burden of proof that a parent has been notified gets ridiculously,
impossibly high. This
blog post records some of the issues at stake.
Did you know that the law
often requires both parents to sign off, even if one has skipped town and
hasn’t been heard from in 15 years? And even if a girl walks in the door with
both parents, the question is, how do you prove
these are her parents?  There’s not an ID
card that says, "My name is X and my legal guardians are Y and Z." From the

So, you can (and do) have the
situation where a girl’s mother and father come to the clinic with her, but do
not have IDs, social security cards, or birth certificates, so the clinic sends
the girl to the courthouse, since she is legally unable to notify her parents,
who are standing next to her.

Judicial bypass has become a joke in some places, as well. Last
year, I
interviewed Helena Silverstein about her research in this area,
and she
discovered that many judges simply refuse to process judicial bypass laws. Sometimes
it’s because they’re too busy, but often it’s because they support forced
childbirth for teenagers.

It’s hard to say how many teenage girls are forced to give
birth against their will every year because of these laws; after all, women who
are determined not to have a baby will often jump through as many hoops as
necessary to do so. But in the end, the hoop-jumping itself becomes the
punishment for these young women who had sex without permission from misogynist
blowhards. And it’s this sadism, this will to force teenage girls to go through
heart-breaking bureaucratic humiliation in order to get a basic medical
procedure that makes me the most skeptical of all of anti-choicers who posture
and pretend to care a fig for the well-being of teenage girls.