A new bill in the Massachusetts Legislature could make it easier for minors to get an abortion. The bill, An Act to Remove Obstacles and Expand Abortion Access, known as the ROE Act, does many things, but front and center is a provision to eliminate the need for parental consent.
Under current Massachusetts law, minors need a parent’s permission to get an abortion. If that’s not possible, or if a teen doesn’t want to ask a parent, she can petition a judge, a process known as judicial bypass.
Those pushing for the new law say the process is overly complicated, and that the status quo doesn’t help pregnant minors.
“The minors consent law that’s been in place created a lot of unnecessary and burdensome and harmful barriers for young people in the state,” says Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “Young people have the ability to make these personal decisions about health care and about whether they’re ready to be a parent.”
We already trust minors to make reproductive health decisions like buying condoms and getting birth control from a doctor, Childs-Roshak says. She doesn't see why abortion should be any different.
“In an ideal world, every teenager would have a parent to guide and discuss some of these important things with," she says. "But the reality is that there are some young people who don’t."
Yet while Planned Parenthood — along with NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, Massachusetts Family Planning Association and the American Civil Liberties Union Massachusetts — supports this bill, not everyone agrees the law needs to change.
Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens For Life, says that when it comes to minors — children in the eyes of the law — parents need to be involved. In her mind, if minors need parental consent to get their ears pierced, surely they should need it to get an abortion.
“Abortion is a medical procedure, and it’s an invasive medical procedure, so it’s not nothing from a medical point of view,” she says. “I think everyone would agree that parents have the responsibility for their children’s health and the follow up, and that they need to be involved.”
She also worries that changing the law would mean fewer minors would talk to their parents about an unintended pregnancy.
“The law is a great teacher, and anytime if the law is essentially saying we want to breakdown a relationship in the family, we want to impose ourselves, I think that’s very negative,” she says.
Both sides of the debate acknowledge that the majority of minors who get an abortion in the state do it with parental consent. It’s what the policy should be for those who can’t, or who don’t want to, that inspires disagreement.
When it comes to minors and abortion, every state has its own law. Some require teens to notify a parent, others require that both parents consent. Most also have some sort of judicial bypass system.
Childs-Roshak says that Massachusetts has one of the more restrictive parental consent laws in New England. And as a result, she thinks it encourages minors to travel across state lines for health care they should be able to receive here.
A 2009 report from the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports access to abortion, found that “the clearest documented impact of parental involvement laws is an increase in the number of minors traveling outside their home states to obtain abortion services in states that do not mandate parental involvement or that have less restrictive laws.”
Planned Parenthood couldn’t provide data about the number of Massachusetts minors who get an out-of-state abortion, but Childs-Roshak says that many go to Vermont or New York, which don’t have parental consent laws.
“I think the main thing that we need to understand is that everyone’s situation is not the same,” says Jasmin Johnson, Planned Parenthood outreach coordinator for Boston. “You never know what a minor’s relationship is like with their parent. You don’t know if it’s actually a grandparent raising them, and they’re from a whole other country, a whole other decade, a whole other belief system.”
For Johnson, the issue is personal. At 16, the Dorchester native discovered she was pregnant.
“I knew instantly once I found out that I was pregnant that I did not want to keep it,” she says. She also knew she didn’t want to tell her parents, who had her when they were teenagers.
“I felt like, ‘Wow, how do I explain this to my parents who have such high expectations of me?’ I just didn’t want to disappoint them,” she says.
Johnson went to Planned Parenthood and learned that the only way to get around telling her parents was to make her case in front of a judge.
“So for me, it was like, ‘Damn, would I rather tell a judge or would I rather tell my parents?’”
She chose the judge. Planned Parenthood connected her with a court-appointed lawyer and she got a hearing date. The next challenges were logistical: figuring out how to get out of school, using public transportation to get to the courthouse, and doing it all without her parents knowing.
“It was very much a timing, a scheduling, a transportation thing – just basic barriers like, 'I can’t get here, I can’t afford to get here, I can’t cover for where I’m supposed to be when I’m actually here,' ” she says.
Johnson forged a note to get out of school and met her lawyer for the first time minutes before she spoke to the judge. She told the judge she wanted to finish high school and go to college, and that she didn’t think she could if she had a baby.
To her relief, the judge approved her plea. She got an abortion a few days later.
“Even though someone is technically a minor at 16, you still have feelings, you still have privacy rights, you still have things that you want to keep to yourself,” Johnson says. “And sometimes parents and you live in a completely different world.”
This article was originally published on January 17, 2019.
This segment aired on January 17, 2019.