Abortion Effort Isn’t Untested

Times Staff Writer

Chaundra Smith got pregnant last spring. Awash in conflicting emotions, she was sure about one thing: Telling her parents wasn’t an option.

“I just didn’t want to disappoint them,” the Austin high school senior recalled.

But when Smith telephoned an abortion clinic for an appointment, she learned that state law required what she so desperately sought to avoid -- that her parents be notified. Determined to dodge disclosure, she waited 2 1/2 months until her 18th birthday, when the rule no longer applied -- and her abortion was somewhat riskier.


Smith could have asked a judge for an exemption, but she was unaware she had that right. Her experience, interviews suggest, reflects the lingering uncertainty -- especially among teenagers -- surrounding the abortion law passed in Texas six years ago.

With Californians poised to vote Tuesday on a similar measure, Proposition 73, activists on both sides of the issue are using the experience of other states to bolster their campaign claims. In Texas, a large state with a diverse population like California’s, sponsors say the law has been a resounding success, reducing teen abortions and ensuring that parents have a legal role in their daughters’ reproductive lives.

“We’ve seen a very positive public policy effect,” said Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, which helped draft the law. “When you allow parents to exercise their right to protect their girls from abortion, we believe the benefit is substantial.”

Critics, however, say other factors explain the drop in abortions, including the increased availability of the “morning after” pill, decisions by some teens to terminate their pregnancies in Mexico or neighboring states, and a downward trend that was already underway.

Opponents say the law’s real legacy has been to intensify the trauma of an unplanned pregnancy for girls who are orphans or live in troubled homes, by forcing them into court for permission to abort. Physicians say that means girls are terminating pregnancies at a somewhat later gestational age, when the costs and risk of complications are greater.

“I don’t know of one abortion that was prevented by laws like these,” said Dr. Paul Fine, medical director at Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas. “In families where the relationships are strong, the parent is usually involved. In those where the family unit is in turmoil, girls now face another roadblock to care.”

The debate over whether minors should have access to confidential abortions dates to the 1970s. After the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, the number of adolescent abortions increased.

Massachusetts was the first state to require parental consent, in 1974. Since then, 43 other states have passed laws directing abortion providers to either notify a parent or obtain written permission, though nine have been blocked by the courts. California passed a consent law in 1987, but it was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. Now California voters are being asked to amend the state Constitution to require notification.

Under Proposition 73, a clinic must notify a parent 48 hours before an abortion. Then the teen could proceed unless the parent talks her out of it.

The push for a law in Texas began in 1981 and succeeded 18 years later under a bill by Republican Sen. Florence Shapiro. It was signed by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

A mother of three from Plano, Shapiro said in an interview that the law had met expectations.

But others, including Pojman’s group, worried that it was too lax, allowing some minors and clinics to fake notification and keep abortions secret. Earlier this year, they persuaded legislators to require not just notification but written parental consent, a change that took effect two months ago.

Like other states, Texas allows minors to ask a judge for an exemption. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that avenue must be available, and Shapiro believes the process works well in her state.

Scholars say that is not typical nationwide. After research in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Alabama, Helena Silverstein, a professor of law and government at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, concluded that the judicial bypass process has many problems, including ignorance, bureaucratic roadblocks and ideological opposition to abortion among clerks and judges.

In the months after the Texas notification rule look effect in January 2000, minors seeking confidential abortions received a dizzying mix of information when calling clinics and courthouses.

“Texas has 254 counties, and minors were basically getting 254 different answers,” said Diana Philip, a volunteer counselor at a clinic in Austin.

Some clinics, she said, were unfamiliar with the rules and nervous about helping teens obtain an abortion without a parent’s knowledge. Some county clerks, meanwhile, simply told girls, “ ‘Forget it, honey. The judge would never agree to a hearing because he’s against abortion,’ ” Philip said.

In response, Philip in 2001 launched a nonprofit called Jane’s Due Process, which operates a hotline for minors and links them with attorneys, whose fees are covered by the state. More than half of the roughly 40 abortion providers in Texas now refer girls to the hotline, which received 6,000 calls in its first four years, Philip said.

One typical caller was a high school senior in Houston. In an interview, the girl asked that her name be kept secret for the same reason she asked a judge for a confidential abortion: She lives with her alcoholic father -- and if he found out, he might beat her, as he had done to her mother.

The girl, who is Vietnamese American, said she considered keeping the baby but would have been shunned by the Vietnamese community, which she said views unmarried motherhood as “very shameful.”

“And I knew I couldn’t give the baby 100% at this point,” said the 17-year-old, who hopes to attend culinary school. “It’s a lifelong commitment.”

Judges weighing such cases must grant the minor’s request if they find one of three criteria is met: that she is mature and well-informed enough to make the decision independently; that notification would not be in her best interest; or that notification might lead to her physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

Although the Houston girl -- and hundreds of others -- have been granted waivers, reliable data on the outcome of such hearings are not available, because the proceedings are confidential. “We know some are falling through the cracks,” said Rita Lucido, a Houston divorce lawyer and president of the Jane’s Due Process board.

Most vulnerable, attorneys say, are those in rural counties, where the nearest abortion provider might be 200 miles away and everybody in town would find out if a girl walked into the local courthouse seeking help.

One possible effect that has not materialized publicly is a rash of dangerous “back alley” abortions, physicians said. More commonly, said Amy Hagstrom Miller, who owns four Texas clinics, girls trying to avoid disclosure will use large doses of misoprostol, a drug that induces labor or abortions and can be bought without a prescription in Mexico.

Supporters of the law say such reports are offset by positives, including a decline in the number of abortions and improved parent-child communication. “It’s only anecdotal,” Pojman said, “but we believe strongly that this law has removed a barrier between parents and their small children.”

Those targeted by the statute -- Texas teenagers -- seem largely oblivious to it, unless it directly affects their lives, minors and school counselors say. At Gonzalo Garza Independence High School in East Austin, students said the law had not altered sexual behavior.

“Teens are like adults,” said senior Annalis Lowe. “When they want sex, they’re not thinking about anything else.”

Chaundra Smith, who also attends Garza, said having a baby would have undermined her plans to attend college next fall, and she knew the potential father wasn’t prepared to provide for a child.

In the months since her abortion, the teenager has shared the news with her mother. She said the confession “went OK, I guess, but her first question was how many sexual partners did I have.”

Smith, whose mother wasn’t available for an interview, said she got pregnant during her first sexual relationship, when the condom broke. She and the boyfriend have since split, and Smith is now in counseling to deal with what she said was the most traumatic year of her life.

“I feel this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to overcome,” she wrote in a school essay about her experience. “But I knew I could do it and even do it by myself, ‘cause I don’t need anyone to help me do what’s best for me.”