``I don't know what to do. I can't tell my mother because she would kill me. I know she would because she already told me if anything happened to me, she would. ... I am desperate.''
THOSE are the words of a pregnant teenager who wrote to a newspaper adviser in the pre-Roe v. Wade era, pleading for help in the face of a situation and a parent terrifying to her. This young girl and hundreds like her wrote to US presidents, other government officials, and teen advice columns in our recent past.
Their predicaments belie assumptions about the family that underlie legislative proposals mandating parental involvement in the actions of pregnant teenagers. Parental-notification laws rely on a mythology which insists that the family is a well-functioning entity, in which the parents are wise, experienced guides to life, supporting the best interests of their daughters.
The Minnesota and Ohio laws requiring parental notification prior to minors' abortions that the Supreme Court has agreed to review this term ignore the powerful myth of the sexually pure daughter and virgin bride. Parents' disappointment when the myth is destroyed has often produced rage, especially by fathers, and sometimes violent behavior against a dependent daughter. Pregnant teens unwilling to confide in their parents may have reason to believe that disclosure is dangerous.
Voices from the pre-Roe v. Wade era provide a sense of what life was like without the extra-familial support and options that became available to pregnant teenagers after 1973. A 16-year-old girl wrote to President Truman telling that she let ``a very horrid boy take me home from a party, thinking I could trust him, and [then he] attacked me.'' This teenager said her ``quick-tempered father ... would just as soon kill me'' if he found out about the resulting pregnancy.
A letter to a government official from a pregnant 17-year-old in Maryland reported that her ``boyfriend'' joined the service when he learned of the pregnancy. Her stepfather was going to kick her out of the house. And her own father? ``Since my trouble, he has been going around telling everyone in town.''
Stories of pregnant teenagers frequently revealed violent fathers and emotionally-abusive sexual partners. ``My father does not know and shall not know of it. I would rather die than ever have to tell him. He is very stern. He drinks quite often and would beat my mother and myself if he knew. He would also make it known to everyone. Jimmy, the father of the baby ... is [in the Navy] and I have not heard from him. I know he is not willing to help me.''
These teenagers from our recent past did not have parents they could trust. The responses of parents to news of their daughters' pregnancy demonstrate that the American family system often could not deal with a crisis of this nature. The same holds true today.
The helplessness, frustration, and utter loneliness of pregnant teenage girls is expressed by a young woman from Roxbury, Mass., who turned to the president as the only adult authority who might respect her. She asked, ``Can you talk to the father of my baby and make him marry me long enough to give my son a name? They have laws that put a man in prison if he steals so much as $10, but men that rob girls of their sense of decency and respect and also their children of a name get off scot-free.''
These letters from the pre-choice era reveal again and again that the family's most vulnerable member, the daughter, often fares disastrously when issues involving her sexuality become family business. Girls who are afraid of their parents or of other adults often have good reason. Up to 35 percent of teenage girls seeking abortions may feel unsafe in telling parents of the pregnancy. One recent study of teenage pregnancy in a rural area in the state of Washington found that almost one-third of the girls were pregnant from incest. To which family member should these teenagers safely turn for help? How many of the girls who seek abortions without parental notification are the victims of incest?
We might learn something from the other 65 percent who feel safe enough to consult their parents. The distinction between the two groups may not lie in the willful irresponsibility of the noncommunicating teenagers, but in the behavior and attitudes of their parents.
Judges, legislators, and the public must remember that for many teenage girls, silence and secrecy is their only recourse within the family. For them, it's a necessary and sane strategy for self-preservation.