Should parents have the right to know if their adolescent daughter is seeking an abortion? California is about to join the increasing number of states that answer ``yes.'' With a ``parental consent'' bill well on its way to legislative approval, California will become the 29th state to require permission or notification of a teen-ager's parents.
``A minor child cannot ... go have her ears pierced without her parents' knowledge, yet we allow her to undertake the serious medical procedure of abortion completely on her own,'' says Brian Johnston, regional coordinator of the National Right to Life Committee.
The pending change in California law shows ``people are just not comfortable with the concept of unlimited abortion on demand,'' Mr. Johnston adds.
Legislative and public support for the parental-consent law picked up steam in California this year when it was disclosed that a high school teacher accompanied a student to an abortion clinic, unbeknown to the girl's parents.
The parents learned of their daughter's condition only when she developed medical complications.
Although more than half the states have parental-consent laws, the statutes in 17 states are not enforced, are under court injunction, or have been declared unconstitutional.
While acknowledging problems with the application of the parental-consent laws, Johnston says California's approach ``is better than nothing.''
The change here will be a setback for abortion-rights activists.
It comes at a time when a conservative shift in the composition of the courts - the California Supreme Court as well as the United States Supreme Court - has pro-choice leaders concerned that access to abortion will soon be severely curtailed for women of all ages.
On the California court, three moderate-to-conservative justices have replaced three liberal justices this year - the outcome of voters' repudiation of former Chief Justice Rose Bird and judicial activism.
Once the reconstituted court has the opportunity to review the issue, this year or next, pro-choice leaders expect to lose state funding for abortion, says Susan Kennedy of the California Abortion Rights League.
On the national level, pro-choice forces are organizing to lobby against the Senate confirmation of US Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, now a federal appeals court judge.
They say that, with his conservative credentials, Judge Bork undoubtedly would vote - if another abortion case should reach the Supreme Court during his tenure - to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Since Roe v. Wade, the high court has struck down a variety of state laws that restricted a woman's access to abortion. However, it has also ruled that states can impose parental-notification requirements for minors - provided there is an avenue for a girl to bypass the requirement. One such alternative is to seek permission from a judge.
In California, where a third of the 80,000 abortions each year are performed on teen-agers, the new law will provide for this option of ``judicial bypass.''
Neither side in the abortion controversy likes the idea of judicial bypass. Antiabortion forces say it undermines parents' authority over their daughters and leaves pregnant teen-agers bereft of familial support in their hour of greatest need. Abortion-rights supporters, on the other hand, say they oppose judicial bypass because it unnecessarily adds emotional trauma to an already-difficult situation.
Last year a federal district judge in Minnesota issued an injunction against a five-year-old parental-notification law, saying it served no state interest and was unduly burdensome on the pregnant teen-ager.
The case was the first ever in which the ruling was influenced by consideration of how such laws work in practice.
The court found that of 3,573 petitions filed in Minnesota courts to bypass the parental-notification requirement, only nine were denied. State judges testified they felt theirs was a rubber-stamp function that served no useful purpose.
In addition, Judge Donald D. Alsop suggested the evidence contradicted the US Supreme Court's ``assumption'' that such laws foster improved relations between pregnant teen-agers and their parents.
The decision is on appeal to the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth District.
Johnston agrees that laws requiring parental consent or notification are ``all in a state of flux,'' but he says they have nonetheless been beneficial.
During the time Minnesota's law was in effect, the teen pregnancy rate dropped 40 percent - ``negating the need for all those abortions,'' he says.