“There was a 16-year-old girl named Gabby, and she ended up getting pregnant,” a young woman’s voice begins to tell us. Her words are set to beats and rhymes on a SoundCloud recording produced by the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH), a Chicago nonprofit that supports youth accessing reproductive and queer justice. Her story continues, “She knew that if she told her parents, that her parents were gonna make her keep the child. So, she decided to go and get an unsafe abortion. What ended up happening was, I don’t know the exact complications that she had, but she did have complications from the unsafe abortion, and ended up dying.”
The word ‘dying’ delivers a chilling echo in the teen’s voice. The young woman, Amber*, reminds us that Gabby didn’t have to meet such a horrible death if she were able to access safe healthcare – if there weren’t laws barring her access to care from a licensed, quality abortion provider.
August 15th marks the one-year anniversary of Illinois’ enforcement of the Parental Notification of Abortion Law of 1995, which requires an abortion provider to notify a parent or guardian of a youth within 48 hours of their abortion. The law was originally passed in 1995, but was caught up in court battles for years. Last summer, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the law could be applied to young people, 17 and younger.
With the law as written, a teen would need to notify a parent or guardian, but does not need to obtain their consent for the abortion. It is hard to see how it is much different. Young people do have the option of trying to obtain a bypass from a judge if they don’t feel that they can notify a parent or guardian, however it is an arduous process that requires them to miss a day of school and go before a judge who might not support their access to healthcare. A judge who may pass judgment on a young person simply because of how they look, where they come from, or the color of their skin. No matter who a young person is forced to notify when accessing an abortion – whether it’s a family member or a judge – this law seeks to shame them for simply wanting one.
Forced parental notification, like many anti-abortion bills, are deliberate barriers designed to keep those who already face barriers, including low-income people, immigrants, communities of color, queer and young people from accessing safe abortion care from affordable and licensed abortion providers.
Illinois is one of 38 states that requires parental notification and/or consent for young women seeking to terminate a pregnancy.
You can’t legislate good communication between families, and you certainly won’t do it by forcing young people to seek unsafe abortion care. These laws aren’t about health or safety – quite the opposite. They don’t improve quality of care. They simply place yet another barrier in front of young people’s ability to make the best decision for the personal circumstances.
“When I heard the story, I was shaken up about it because I knew that [Gabby] couldn’t get a safe abortion just because of her age,” Amber continues. “It was really sad. It made me cry. I just felt like something had to be done. Because I felt as though, she knew what she wanted.”
At a time when teen pregnancy, abortion and birth rates are at record lows, states are passing more forced parental notification and consent laws, decreasing access to safe abortion care. The sad fact is that is likely to make stories like Gabby’s more common. As Yamani Hernandez, Executive Director of ICAH explains, laws like forced parental notification will create more obstacles between young people and safe healthcare.
“This parental notice law is nothing short of dangerous and a barrier to healthcare access. It drives young people to get unsafe abortions to avoid having parents notified of their choice to have a safe procedure done by medical providers,” says Hernandez.
Research shows that forced parental notification laws aren’t only harmful, they are actually unnecessary. According to research from Guttmacher Institute, a majority of young people 17 and under are already involving at least one parent in their decision to seek an abortion. Of those who don’t inform a parent, many cite fear of being thrown out of their homes for becoming pregnant, or that their abuser is a guardian. Notifying them of a young person’s intent to seek an abortion could put them in more danger and would delay their access to abortion care, making the procedure more complicated and more expensive.
“It means that young people who are already fearful of the judicial system may take desperate measures to avoid the extra effort to stand before a judge to obtain judicial bypass. It means that young people who are being abused at home or pregnant by means they have not consented to have to confront abusers in humiliating ways,” says Hernandez. “It means that young people are subjected to homelessness and violence by parents who disapprove of their pregnancy. It means that young people who are not interested or able to parent for mental, emotional, financial reasons or otherwise may be coerced into parenting by their own parents.”
Hernandez’s comments aren’t a hypothetical – on the recording, Amber shares the story of her own pregnancy scare and fear of telling her mother.
“Whenever I bring up like one of one of my friends, because a lot of my friends have kids, [my parents] be like ‘Well, if that happened to you, you gotta get out. You know you gotta get out, right? You can’t live here.”
As the daughter of a teenage mother, Amber hoped that she could go to her mother when she thought she might be pregnant, but instead she felt like she would be met with shame for having sex and the threat of being left without a home. But she was not alone. She had the assistance of her ‘chosen family’, a supportive community made up of friends and adult allies who took her out to dinner, went with her to a Chicago grocery chain to buy a pregnancy test, and then a nearby hotel where she could take the test in their bathroom. Amber speaks fondly of the event on the recording because compassionate friends, who helped her find safer sex resources without the shame and judgment, surrounded her. If she were going to find out information that may change the course of her life, she wanted to feel supported, not stigmatized, when it happened.
As an adult ally, I seek to fight for a world in which young people feel safe asking about safer sex, queer sex, support for pregnant and parenting teens, abortion, adoption, and contraception. Young people are resilient. They can and do and already are making smart decisions about their bodies each and every day. Why are we enacting laws that put them in harms way and create unnecessary barriers to health care? No matter how anyone feels about abortion, I can’t imagine that we as a society think it’s better to send our young people into harm’s way and force them to become a parent when they aren’t ready to, rather than give them access to the safe healthcare they deserve. Let’s make sure the safer sex resources they need are within their reach for when they need them.
Not everyone has a supportive family to go to in times of need. We need to support families in building trust, but we can’t punish teens who do not have open communication with their parents. It’s time we stop legislating and start listening to what young people need. And what they say they need is the information, services, and support to make their own decisions, not the intrusion of politicians who don’t know them or their lives.
For more information, or to learn your rights as a teen accessing an abortion, visit stoppna.org.
*Names have been changed.
Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist and writer with Echoing Ida, a Black Women’s writing collective and project of Forward Together, and a graduate student at Cornell University pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration. Follow Renee on Twitter @RBraceySherman