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Abortion Initiative Puts Focus on Girls’ Welfare

Times Staff Writer

No matter which side people take in the debate on Proposition 85, they generally agree on this: Parents like to know what their children do.

What opponents and supporters passionately disagree on is this: whether the state should require abortion providers to inform a parent about an underage daughter’s request for an abortion -- and whether that helps protect her.

Proposition 85 would amend the state Constitution to bar abortions for any patient under 18 until 48 hours after her parent or guardian had been notified by a physician. Only girls facing a medical emergency or obtaining a judicial waiver would be exempt.

The initiative does not require parental consent. After the waiting period, a minor would still have the legal right to an abortion. But both sides say a parent’s strong opposition could alter an underage daughter’s plans.

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Supporters of the ballot initiative point out that no other medical procedures for minors are afforded confidentiality. Campaign spokesman Albin Rhomberg, a retired physicist, said minors “need to be protected from their immaturity and vulnerability.”

“These girls who think these sexual predators on the Internet are Prince Charming -- how can [parents] be responsible ... if the abortion is secret?”

Supporters contend that parental notification would help thwart sex between underage girls and adult men, stating in the official voter information guide that “secret abortions on minors in California are rarely reported to child protective services although these pregnancies are evidence of statutory rape and sexual abuse.”

Critics of the proposition say they never would withhold information about a pregnancy they believed was the result of rape or sexual abuse.

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“They’re trying to say our staff, our healthcare professionals, are aiding and abetting child sexual predators, and we find that to be ludicrous, unsubstantiated, and we’re not going to let them get away with it,” said Kathy Kneer, the chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. Planned Parenthood, a major financial backer of the campaign to defeat the initiative, expects to raise $5 million, according to Kneer.

Said Susan Baldwin, an L.A. County public health doctor and a former medical director of Planned Parenthood in Tucson: “Healthcare providers are required by law to report abuse of a minor. And when girls come in pregnant, there’s a policy for a girl under a certain age; it’s a red flag. A 14-year-old comes in pregnant, it’s not swept under the rug.”

The major backers of the Proposition 85 campaign are James Holman, publisher of the weekly San Diego Reader, and former state Assemblyman Don Sebastiani, a Sonoma County vintner whose company produces Smoking Loon and Pepperwood Grove wines.

This is the second go-round for a parental notification initiative. Proponents say last year’s offering, part of a long special election ballot, was a victim of the mass anti-initiative fervor in California. It also would have inserted a controversial definition of abortion into the state Constitution.

This year, with the initiative reworded, supporters say it stands a better chance.

On both sides of the issue, advocates point to extreme cases of girls in other states who became distraught, either because they did not tell a parent about an abortion or because they were required to tell a parent. (Notification laws are currently in effect in 34 states.)

Both sides say a pregnant teen is facing a serious issue.

An abortion “has implications for a young woman’s mental, physical and emotional health,” said Mary Davenport, an obstetrician-gynecologist who practices in El Sobrante and is a supporter of Proposition 85. “I think that decision should involve her parents.”

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Davenport, 59, who performed abortions as a young doctor but is now opposed to the procedure, is one of the authors of the official argument for Proposition 85.

Critics of the initiative argue that communication between a parent and a child cannot be legislated. Those teens who want to tell their parents will do so, with or without a law, and most generally do, according to doctors opposing the initiative. Those who do not want to tell their parents will not.

“The scariest thing about this law is that it jeopardizes the most vulnerable women,” said L.A. County’s Baldwin, 39, who has performed abortions. Opponents of the initiative stress that some minors fear abuse if they inform a parent. “Sometimes notification doesn’t lead to the best outcome for the patient.... The main thing is for them to get help and get care right away -- whether they’re going to terminate or have the baby.”

Opponents of Proposition 85 say the notification measure will be defeated again. On Aug. 2, the Field Poll released data indicating that 45% of voters opposed the measure and 44% supported it. Last year’s Proposition 73 was defeated 53% to 47%.

Critics argue that the law is simply unnecessary. “Teen pregnancy rates in California have continued to decline without this law,” said Kneer of Planned Parenthood.

According to the Bixby Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy at UC San Francisco, California’s adolescent pregnancy rate fell by 46% over the last decade, from 102 to 55 per 1,000 women age 15 to 17.

Parental notification, said Kneer, “does not provide any other benefits to parents. It doesn’t help children and parents talk about sex.”

But it might discourage underage youths from having sex, say proponents of the measure. “One of the things they find is it has a chilling effect,” said Sebastiani, who has contributed roughly half a million dollars to the campaign to pass Proposition 85. “A 17-year-old girl is thinking twice. Instead of a pound of cure, this is an ounce of prevention -- ‘Holy mackerel, I better watch myself because my parents are going to find out.’ ”

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Sebastiani, 53, who has adult sons and a 20-year-old daughter, said he understands the situation of a girl who fears abuse if her parents are informed about her seeking an abortion. “In that case, I want the whistle blown,” said Sebastiani, who is against abortion in general.

But, he added, “if you have a teenager who is, let’s say, considering sexual activity and doesn’t want to have any discussion with her mother at all, and there’s a healthy situation at home, and she’s scared about the ramifications of sexual activity, I think that’s healthy.... When I was 17, if I got a ticket, I wasn’t scared of the ticket. I wasn’t scared of the police. I was scared of my dad. And that fear is a substantial ingredient in turning out OK.”

Under the proposed law, a girl could seek a judicial exemption from notification. The measure specifies that the girl, whose identity would be kept confidential, must appear at a Juvenile Court hearing that must be held within two days of her petition for a waiver. To grant the waiver, a judge would have to find that the girl was “sufficiently mature and well-informed to decide whether to have an abortion” or that notification of a parent was “not in the best interests of the unemancipated minor.”

The judge would be obligated to rule within a day of the hearing or the girl would automatically be granted a waiver.

“In almost all cases where minors seek a waiver, it’s almost automatic,” said Proposition 85 spokesman Rhomberg, referring to other states where notification laws are in effect.

But critics say that facing the judicial system is not simple.

“For someone who is 15 years old, has no access to transportation and doesn’t have three or four hours to spend on the phone, it’s just a daunting challenge,” said Katie Buckland, director of the California Women’s Law Center. “I’m sure girls will figure it out, but I’m sure it will be when it’s truly an emergency, which is when girls are starting to show.”

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Carla.Hall@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Jenifer Warren contributed to this report. For exclusive Web features, including the new Political Muscle blog, go to latimes.com/californiapolitics.


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