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CIANA: Closing the Door on the Support and Care that Teens Need

When your line of work is protecting reproductive rights, like me, sometimes you just don’t know how the day will go. Some days you just never know. And last Tuesday was just one of those days. That day I went to the markup of H.R. 2299, a bill titled the “Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act” that took place in the House Committee on the Judiciary. This bill, which is better called the “Teen Endangerment Act,” would jail an aunt or grandmother who supports a niece or granddaughter who crosses state lines to seek abortion care. The bill would also jail a doctor who provides abortion care to a teen who crosses state lines for such care when the doctor did not first inform the teen’s parents. There are very few exceptions to these onerous and dangerous provisions (including none that consider the health of the pregnant teen), meaning that this bill would most likely result in teens being denied access to abortion care they seek or make teens seek such care without any support from a trusted adult.

I went to the markup not really knowing what to expect, particularly because the hearing a few weeks before had not been very dramatic, especially when compared to other recent hearings on reproductive issues (most notably the “Where Are the Women” contraceptive coverage hearing and the hearing on the “Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2011”). Unfortunately, the markup made up for the hearing’s relative lack of drama, as I sat through hours of votes where every amendment that would have made this harmful bill just a little less harmful was rejected. Yes, the amendment that would have exempted a grandmother from criminal penalties for helping her granddaughter during her time of need was voted down. Yes, the Committee rejected an amendment that would have provided an exception to the criminalization of a minister or older sister who supports a teen seeking abortion care where the teen’s health was in danger. The Committee also rejected a similar amendment that would have exempted physicians from criminal penalties for failing to notify a teen’s parents where the health of the teen was in danger (yes, in case you were wondering, this is the Judiciary Committee rejecting a provision that the Supreme Court has said is required in any restriction to abortion access). The Committee also voted down an amendment that would have exempted the criminalization of an older brother or neighbor who helps a teen when she fears for her physical safety if forced to notify one or both parents. Are you starting to get why I felt pretty deflated after this markup?

Rep. Trent Franks repeatedly responded to these amendments by stating that they would gut the very point of this bill, which is to involve parents in a teen’s decision to seek abortion care. I think everyone is in agreement that most teens should involve their parents in such decisions, and in fact, the vast majority do. However, what Rep. Franks and I don’t agree on, or that Rep. Franks is just unwilling to acknowledge (or refuse to consider), is that there are circumstances where a teen feels that she cannot include her parents in her decision. In these cases, the teen may turn to her grandmother, her rabbi, her older sister, her aunt, her school counselor, her neighbor, or her basketball coach for support as she seeks abortion care. And in some cases, she may have to cross interstate lines to get that care, maybe because she lives in one of the 87% of counties that lack a provider of abortion care. But the “Teen Endangerment Act” would criminalize those actions, sending that trusted adult or the teen’s physician to prison for up to a year and/or facing serious fines for helping or providing care to a teen in need.

There were two points in particular during the markup where I found myself cringing so much that my head hurt. The first was when a Representative actually gave a thumbs-down when voting nay to an amendment that would have established an exception to protect the health of the teen. A thumbs-down to teen’s health, real nice.

And the second point was when Rep. Franks (R-AZ), who again is at the center of a bill that would deny women access to abortion care, argued against an amendment that would have waived the criminal penalties against a supportive sibling; a sibling, as Rep. Scott (D-VA) explained, who would be particularly sensitive to a family situation that would deter a teen from involving her parents in her decision. Rep. Franks did not like the amendment because it severed the “essential” parent-teen relationship (is there still an essential relationship where the teen is being abused by a parent?). Although Rep. Franks said that he understood that sometimes parents were rapists, he did not think that these situations warranted giving other family members the ability to support a pregnant teen. What? A teen is being raped or abused by her father, and maybe her mother knows about the abuse, or maybe her mother can’t support her because she also bears the brunt of the abuse, but to tell that teen, you’re out of luck – you can’t even turn to your brother or sister for help without getting them into serious criminal trouble – what??!!

It was this complete disregard for situations where this bill could really hurt young women, where form was elevated over substance to the point of incredulity, when it really hit me what this bill is all about. Those in support of the bill want parental involvement over all other costs, including the teen’s health and safety. All in the name of parental involvement, a teen’s aunt could go to jail for accompanying her niece to receive abortion care, knowing that her niece’s parents were in no place to support her during her time of need. All in the name of parental involvement, young women could face significant delays to receiving abortion care, face seeking abortion care alone, or face health complications after being denied care for not involving her parents in her decision. All in the name of parental involvement, we find ourselves with one more hurdle preventing access to reproductive health care.

If it wasn’t evident to me before, it is now. These lawmakers want to restrict access to abortion at all costs. Any restriction limiting access to abortion is a victory, even if such restrictions actually hurt women. I just hope that, if this bill were ever to become law (hopefully it never will), the teens who would be forced to face their unintended pregnancies afraid and alone understand that this bill was really never about them. Sadly, it was never really about them at all. 

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