Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Young, Pregnant, Desperate? Pick Your Judge Carefully

Photo by Flickr user mindgutter, used under a Creative Commons license.

Parental notification laws for young women and girls seeking abortions are a crappy idea. Most states have them by now, but that still doesn't make them smart.

As a mother, I know that if I want my kids to come to me with serious problems someday, I have to build a foundation of trust. If either of my boys ever got a girl pregnant, they'd need to know that they could come to me for advice and counsel. They'd need to feel enough love and respect that they could trust me to support them. And so my job of establishing that trust starts now, while they're still little kids.

Because you can't legislate love, trust, and respect. You've gotta earn it.

Realistically, though, some families are just dysfunctional. Sometimes a pregnancy is a result of incest. Sometimes a girl fears being thrown out of the house, or beaten, or belittled. In those cases, parental notification laws don't repair anything; they just make a pregnant girl's life much more difficult. And if we're stuck with those laws, then judicial overrides are indispensable.

In Ohio, pregnant teenagers under 18 do have the option of taking their case to a judge - but as yesterday's Columbus Dispatch reports, it matters crucially which judge hears your case:
The bypass hearing is "not something a lot of people know about, I admit," Judge Dana Suzanne Preisse said.

"The average age is 16 or 17, and some are weeks from their 18th birthday. They have to prove to the court they are emotionally mature and intelligent enough to make this decision on their own."

After 18, parental consent is not needed for an abortion.

Judge Kim Browne said she spends 20 minutes with each teen and her attorney.

"I don't think I'm playing God at all," said Browne, who has never denied a request. "That is their choice. That's the decision they are going to have to live with. ...

Judges don't ask for the teens' names or schools, or who the father is. Sometimes, a clean driving record and good grades are enough to convince a judge of "sufficient maturity," the key phrase in the Ohio Revised Code. ...

Some former judges, including Carole Squire and the late George W. Twyford, usually denied the requests on moral grounds, court officials said.

"I don't think it's appropriate for a family court judge to flagrantly disregard the parents' authority," Squire, a Domestic Relations judge from 2000 to 2006, said last week.

"I don't believe (judges) are applying the law correctly. Good grades in school is not dispositive of being sufficiently mature."

As her conservative stance became known, fewer bypass hearings came her way, she said. ...

Preisse has denied only one request, she said.

"I feel I'm elected by the people to follow the statute," even if it goes against her own moral standards.

(Source: Columbus Dispatch)
I don't know where "playing God" enters into this. Why is that even part of the discussion? Why does a judge - even a liberal judge - feel compelled to defend herself against this potential charge? This is a human decision, affecting human lives.

Why does a judge feel she needs to make clear that she herself is more moral than the girls over whose fate she presides? Even though she has only turned down one case, why does she presume that her personal anti-abortion stance is more moral than the decisions these girls have made?

It's also misleading to couch this decision in terms of parental authority. If no action is taken, these girls will become parents themselves! How can a judge deem a girl too immature to make the abortion decision - but then lock her into a parental role, which will demand far more maturity from her?

And how does a scared sixteen-year-old figure out in advance which judge will give her a fair hearing, and which one will dismiss her case out of hand?

Lots of questions, no good answers - all spawned by legislation that's basically misguided from the get-go.


frau sally benz said...

This post is Awesome with a capital A!

It's also misleading to couch this decision in terms of parental authority. If no action is taken, these girls will become parents themselves!
This is the basic problem I have with consent laws. Yes, sometimes these girls' parents will help them out but, let's face it, that's just not a guarantee. Once that girl becomes a mother, she's now taking on a role that she 1) didn't want 2) is obviously not prepared for and 3) can negatively affect all her future decisions. That sounds like the start of a horrible cycle if you ask me.

Sungold said...

The pat answer that many pro-life activists and judges would give is this: She should give the baby up for adoption. But it's just not that easy. The experiences of late pregnancy usually create a bond that most new mothers find impossible to simply sever.

frau sally benz said...

Which is, of course, what they want. They want to say that you should give the baby up for adoption knowing that in the end you might just want to keep the baby. That just leads to the same cycle I was talking about. These anti-choice, anti-birth control people drive me nuts!

Sungold said...

Well, I really do think they want more "adoptable" babies, especially if they're white. But yeah - the same people who want to restrict girls' access to abortion also don't want them to get regular birth control or Plan B.

Hesperis said...

As a woman who has moved past parenting and into grandmothering (or soon anyway, yippeeeee!) I'm gonna take advantage and add a bit of crone advice: I did try to instill trust in my kids and I think I did a pretty good job on that. But also, by thinking back to my own "kid self", I realized that there just might be some things that my own kids might not want to discuss with me. I made a conscious effort to find a circle of trusted adults and older people with whom I hoped they could talk about problems and told the kids and the adults that, though I would encourage dialogue between myself and my kids, I wanted them to have other adults on standby who could be helpful if, for reasons of my imperfect, oh so imperfect, humanity, I wasn't up to snuff. I guaranteed that I wouldn't be pissed off if the kids took me up on the offer and that I'd do my best to stay unthreatened and non-defensive with the adults. As it turned out, there did come such times. The adults helped my kids to find their courage and their trust in me and facilitated some very important chats. It's a hard thing to do, in that it means trusting people outside the family circle - but I think it can be done and I recommend it.

When I was in my teenage years, I used to plan on escaping to a foreign country if I got pregnant. I know, now, that my parents' reactions wouldn't have been as awful as I then thought. But I didn't want to "disappoint" them. On the other hand, had I ever wanted an abortion, I would have had to find my support elsewhere.

Sungold said...

Hey, congratulations on (almost) being a grandmother! I hope you'll have lots and lots of pleasure in it.

I really appreciate your thoughtful words, and I'm taking them to heart. I know I'm a pretty good parent - and also a pretty imperfect one. On top of that, I also know that kids *really* don't want to disappoint their folks - particularly when it's a loving family! You were that way, Hesperis. So was I. And I can already see the same thing in my older son. For that reason alone (never mind the vicissitudes of puberty) I totally get why your strategy is one worth emulating.

On the flip side, I can already see that there are a couple of older kids in my neighborhood for whom I might be able to fill that role, someday, of "trusted older confidante." You hope that none of them will need it ... but realistically, they will all make some mistakes.

Thanks, Hesperis!