Parental Involvement Laws 1
Running Head: PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT LAWS
The Maturity and Competence of Girls Obtaining Abortions:
Are Parental Involvement Laws Needed?
Amy C. Butler and Deb Bailey
Forthcoming in Journal of Policy Practice
Amy C. Butler, PhD, is Associate Professor at the University of Iowa School of Social Work. Deb
Bailey, MSW, works in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Direct correspondence to Amy C. Butler, 308 North Hall, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa,
52242 (E-mail: email@example.com)
Parental Involvement Laws 2
A survey of 111 minor girls who obtained abortions in Iowa during the early 1990s found
that girls who did not tell their parents of their abortion plan were more likely than girls who told to
be high school seniors, to have good grades, to have high educational aspirations, and to have
engaged in volunteer work during the previous year. The results challenge the notion that minors
who seek an abortion without the knowledge of their parents are a group in need of legally
mandated parental involvement in their abortion plans.
Key words: Abortion, parental notification, parental consent, parental involvement laws, minor
Parental Involvement Laws 3
In the absence of parental involvement laws, most pregnant minors voluntarily consult a
parent before obtaining an abortion, but an estimated 39% to 45% do not (Henshaw & Kost, 1992;
Resnick, Bearinger, Stark, & Blum, 1994; Rosen, 1980; Torres, Forrest, & Eisman, 1980). To
strengthen parental rights in this arena, 35 states had laws in effect in 2007 that required parental
involvement: 11 states required either one or both parents be notified and 24 states required either
one or both parents give consent before an abortion might be performed on a pregnant minor
(Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 2007). Some girls in states with such laws travel to
another state to obtain an abortion, which has motivated repeated legislative efforts to pass the
Child Custody Protection Act. This act would make it a federal crime to assist a minor in
circumventing her state’s parental involvement law (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2006).
As states continue to look to parental involvement as a means to restrict access to abortion for
minors, our focus for this study is on the girls and their characteristics that facilitate making mature
and informed decisions about obtaining an abortion. To that effort, the question arises: who are
the girls who do not voluntarily tell their parents when they obtain an abortion? What are their
characteristics and how do these characteristics affect their decision to involve their parents in the
decision to have an abortion?
Using a sample of minor girls who obtained an abortion in Iowa prior to the enactment of a
parental notification law, this study examines whether indicators of maturity and competence are
associated with the pregnant minor’s decision to tell her parents of her plans. The results of this
study could challenge the notion that minors who would seek an abortion without the knowledge of
their parents are a group in need of legally mandated parental involvement in their abortion plans.
The first section of the paper provides background information on parental involvement laws
and public and professional opinion on the issue. The next section describes the judicial bypass
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option. This is followed by a review of the research on why pregnant minors do not tell their
parents of their decision to obtain an abortion, focusing on the role of girls’ maturity and ability to
make informed decisions (henceforth referred to as “competence”). Then, we lay out the
hypotheses, followed by a description of the research design and the results from the data analysis.
We conclude with a discussion of the findings along with an analysis of the implications for policy
and policy practice for social workers.
The legal age of consent for medical treatment is 18 years of age in most states but exceptions
are made for minors seeking treatment for drug or alcohol abuse, pregnancy, or sexually
transmitted diseases if the treating physician determines the minor has the capacity to decide on her
own (Wagner, 2006). In the late-1970s, states began to enact parental involvement laws requiring
that parents either be notified or give consent before a minor could obtain an abortion. These
parental involvement laws supersede the previously crafted exceptions.
The primary arguments for parental involvement laws are that minor girls need parental
guidance when making the choice whether to have an abortion and, if they proceed with the
abortion, parental assistance in choosing a health care provider and handling any medical
complications and psychological trauma that might arise as a consequence of the abortion (Center
for Moral Clarity, 2006; Earll, 2005; Robinson, 2006). Opponents of parental involvement laws
argue that there are a number of legitimate reasons why a minor girl may not want her parents to
know she is getting an abortion. For example, a law that requires her to tell can result in the girl's
emotional turmoil and physical abuse. This, in turn, is likely to delay the abortion, thereby
increasing the risk of medical complications of what is otherwise a low-risk procedure (American
Civil Liberties Union, 2001; Boonstra, Gold, Richards, & Finer, 2006; Robinson, 2006).
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National opinion polls indicate that most American adults support the idea of parental
involvement laws. Five national polls conducted between 1992 and 2005 found support for laws
that require women under 18 to have parental consent prior to having an abortion. Public support
for parental consent laws ranged from 69% to 74% (The Polling Report, 2005). Two national polls
conducted in 2005 found majorities of 78% and 80% in favor of the less stringent parental
notification laws (The Polling Report, 2005). Despite the high level of public support, the major
health professional associations have issued policy statements opposing legislation that requires
parental involvement. These associations include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Public Health Association,
the Society for Adolescent Medicine and the American Medical Association (Morreale, Stinnett, &
Dowling, 2005). State chapters of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) have also
opposed parental involvement laws. NASW's Alaska and New Hampshire chapters joined in amici
curiae briefs opposing parental involvement laws in their respective states (Alaska v. Planned
Parenthood of Alaska, 2004; Kelly A. Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England,
2005). Likewise, NASW's California chapter opposed a measure, Proposition 73, which would
have required the notification of one parent before a minor girl could obtain an abortion in
California (NASW-California Chapter, 2005).
The Judicial Bypass
In response to prohibitive state statutes, abortion rights advocates filed law suits arguing that
parental involvement laws violated a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. As a
consequence of Bellotti v Baird (1979) and other U.S. Supreme Court rulings, most parental
involvement laws now include the option of a judicial bypass. The judicial bypass allows a judge
to waive the parental involvement law if the minor is found to be "mature enough and well-enough
informed to make her abortion decision" or, failing that criterion, if the judge finds an abortion or a
Parental Involvement Laws 6
judicial bypass to be in the minor’s best interest (Bellotti v Baird, 1979; see also Stuhlbarg, 1992).
The U.S. Supreme Court has not provided a working definition of maturity or guidelines to
assess whether a girl is capable of making an informed decision. In 1981, however, the
Massachusetts Superior Court issued guidelines for Massachusetts courts stating that,
As to the "maturity" finding, inquiry may be appropriate in such areas as the
minor's age and school and work experience, any history of mental illness or other
treatment relating to mental competence, and whether the abortion decision is a
personal decision and not one forced upon the minor by another and whether the
minor has discussed her decision with other persons. (Mass. Superior Court
Standing Order 5-81)
Advocates who guide minors thorough the judicial bypass process in Florida, Michigan and Texas
advise minors to be prepared to answer a series of questions the judge may ask to assess the minor's
maturity, competence and best interest. In addition to questions about her relationship with her
parents, her understanding of the abortion procedure, medical risks and abortion alternatives, and to
whom she talked about her decision, the minor may be asked whether she has a job, engages in
volunteer work, attends school, gets good grades in school and her plans for the future in regard to
work and school (ACLU of Florida, 2007; Jane's Due Process, 2006; Planned Parenthood of
Michigan, 2006). These latter indicators of maturity and competence can be seen as characteristics
of "good girls," qualities that would engender considerable parental pride. In addition to reflecting
a girl's maturity and competence to make the abortion decision and undergo the procedure without
parental involvement, these characteristics suggest a motivation of the girls not to involve their
parents--a desire not to disappoint their parents. This theme will be explored further in subsequent
Parental Involvement Laws 7
The Empirical Literature
Indicators of maturity and competence.
A number of research studies have explored the characteristics that distinguish girls who tell
their parents from girls who do not tell. Some of these characteristics can be seen as indicators of
either maturity or competence, or of both. Although there is much overlap between the concepts of
maturity and competence (i.e., the ability to make an informed decision), maturity suggests a
certain level of emotional and moral development, whereas competence implies intellectual
Age is commonly used as a proxy for a minor's maturity and competence. Research has
found age to be negatively associated with whether minors voluntarily tell their parents of their
abortion plans. Minor girls who don't tell tend to be older than minor girls who tell (Clary, 1982;
Henshaw & Kost, 1992; Resnick et al, 1994; Torres et al, 1980). Henshaw and Kost (1992), for
example, found that one or both parents knew of their daughter’s planned abortion in 90% of the
cases for girls 14 years old and younger, in 74% of the cases for 15-year-old girls, in 59% of the
cases for 16-year-old girls, and in 51% of the cases for 17-year-old girls.
Researchers have found that young women who do not tell their parents are more likely to
consider themselves mature and competent compared to young women who tell. Griffin-Carlson
and Mackin (1993) asked 439 pregnant women age 12 to 21 who were obtaining abortions at
clinics in Atlanta, Georgia, to rate their maturity as either less than average maturity, average
maturity, or better than average maturity. Higher maturity ratings were negatively associated with
informing parents of the abortion; that is, girls who rated themselves as more mature were less
likely than other girls to tell their parents. Rosen (1980) asked 151 minor girls who were obtaining
abortions at Michigan clinics to rate their competence on a scale of one to four. Rosen found
higher competence ratings to be negatively associated with involving parents in the abortion
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decision. Both the Griffin-Carlson and Mackin study and the Rosen study relied on self-
assessments and the young women may not have been able to adequately assess their own maturity
and competence. If girls who overestimated their maturity and competence were also less likely to
tell their parents of their abortion plans, then self-reporting bias could account for the results.
Additional, more objective measures are needed to determine whether the girls who do not tell are
indeed more mature and competent than girls who tell. Several such measures are proposed below.
Academic achievement may be seen as an indicator of a girl’s competence, in that girls who
can think logically and rationally have greater potential to be successful in school and they may be
better able to understand and successfully negotiate the abortion process without their parents'
assistance. After controlling for age and other factors, Henshaw and Kost (1992) found that girls
enrolled in school were less likely to tell their parents of their abortion plans than were girls who
were not in school. Interpretation of this association, however, is complicated by the fact that girls
who were not in school included both girls who had finished high school and girls who had
dropped out of school—the former being an indicator of academic success and the latter an
indicator of academic failure. The current study uses two measures of academic achievement: year
in school and self-reported grades. It also examines the role of educational aspirations. These
three measures are examined in relation to whether a girl tells her parents of her plans for an
abortion. More schooling, better grades, and higher educational aspirations are expected to be
negatively associated with telling parents of the abortion plan.
Employment and volunteer experience are two factors that might also be used as indicators of
a girl's maturity and competence. Employment and volunteer experience may provide girls with
real-world experience outside the shelter of family and school. These activities may provide
opportunities for girls to interact with others different from themselves. Employment and
volunteer experience may allow girls to increase their network of acquaintances which in turn
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opens up access to new information. In addition, the girls may be given responsibility such as the
requirement of carrying out tasks that may increase their capacity for maturity and competence.
Henshaw and Kost (1992) found that, after controlling for age and other factors, girls who were
employed were less likely to tell their parents than were girls who were not employed. The current
study will examine the role of employment and volunteer work with regard to the decision to tell
parents, with the expectation that girls who have held a job or volunteered in the previous year are
less likely to tell their parents they are getting an abortion, even after controlling for age.
Birth order has been found to influence one's role in the family in ways that affect maturity
(see Hoffman, 1991, for a review of this literature). First-born children, for example, tend to be
given more responsibility than are their younger siblings. Whereas parents often expect first-borns
to take care of their siblings, their siblings learn to expect to be cared for. Eldest children,
therefore, often develop a degree of maturity by assuming a responsible role in the family. In
addition, eldest children must negotiate each successive stage of childhood with parents who are
learning for the first time how to parent a child that age. Likewise, parents tend to have higher
expectations for eldest children and are more likely to discipline them than later-born children.
Eldest children, therefore, may be more likely than their younger siblings to conclude that
obtaining an abortion on their own is more expedient than involving inexperienced parents and
creating unnecessary family turmoil. [Being an only child has been found to produce
characteristics of both eldest and youngest children; their tendency to be a primary focus of their
parents' attention can result in either rebellion or dependence (Hoffman, 1991).] The current study
examines whether birth order is associated with whether pregnant minors tell their parents of their
abortion plans with the expectation that eldest children are the least likely to tell.
The Girls' Own Reasons for Not Telling.
In the case of a pregnant teenager, telling parents of one's plan to obtain an abortion
Parental Involvement Laws 10
invariably involves more than a discussion of the merits of abortion versus bearing a child.
Henshaw and Kost (1992) surveyed 761 minor girls who were obtaining an abortion without their
parents' knowledge. The researchers found that in virtually all cases in which a girl’s parents did
not know that their daughter was having an abortion, the parents also did not know that their
daughter was pregnant. The prospect of involving parents in the abortion decision, therefore, can
be especially daunting for girls because news of the pregnancy may be the parents' first indication
that their daughter is sexually active.
When girls have been asked why they did not tell their parents they were getting an abortion,
the most frequent reason given was that they did not want to hurt or disappoint their parents (Clary,
1982; Henshaw & Kost, 1992). Henshaw and Kost (1992) surveyed a sample of 1,519 minors who
were obtaining abortions in states with no parental involvement laws. They asked the girls who
had not informed their mothers their reasons for not doing so, allowing the girls to give multiple
responses. Almost three-quarters (73%) of the girls responded that they did not want to hurt or
disappoint their mothers. Girls gave other reasons that also reflected a concern for their parents'
well-being. A quarter of the girls indicated that their mothers had too much stress already and 20%
thought the news would cause problems between their parents.
The second most frequent reason girls have given for not telling their parents is that they are
afraid to anger their parents (Clary, 1982; Henshaw & Kost, 1992). In Henshaw and Kost's (1992)
study, for example, slightly over half (55%) of the girls thought their mothers would be angry and
32% feared their parent would make them stop seeing their boyfriend. A minority expected more
serious repercussions: 14% thought their mothers would try to make them continue the pregnancy,
18% of the girls thought their mothers would make them leave home, and 6% thought they would
be beaten. Although the potential for parental abuse and abandonment is important to consider
when weighing the merits of parental involvement legislation, these findings indicate that it is not
Parental Involvement Laws 11
the primary reason why girls do not tell their parents of their abortion plans.
Weighing the benefits and drawbacks of telling
Underlying a girl's decision not to tell her parents is the idea that involving parents is not
worth the problems it may create; that is, the drawbacks of parental involvement outweigh the
benefits. This could be because the drawbacks of telling are seen as considerable (e.g., bringing on
parental abuse or abandonment) or because the benefits of parental input are seen as minimal (i.e.,
parental assistance is not needed). Research supporting the latter indicates that girls who obtain an
abortion without their parents' knowledge tend to be more confident in their abortion decision than
are girls who tell their parents. Henshaw and Kost (1992) found that girls who did not tell were
more likely to report that their initial reaction upon finding out that they were pregnant was that
they did not want to have the baby. Rosen (1980) found that girls who did not tell were more
likely to report that they experienced little conflict in making the decision to have the abortion.
These girls, therefore, confident in their choice of action, will see less benefit to be derived from
consulting with their parents.
The literature review indicates that, compared to girls who tell, minor girls who do not tell
their parents of their abortion plans tend to be older, more confident in their abortion decision,
more likely to assess their own maturity and competence as high and more likely to be employed.
Most of the girls who do not tell express concerns about hurting their parents with the news of the
abortion plans; a minority fear serious punishment from parents.
Using data gathered from minor girls who obtained abortions in Iowa prior to the state's 1996
enactment of a parental notification law, the current study examines the relationship between
indicators of the girls' maturity and competence and whether they tell their parents of their abortion
plans. We hypothesize that educational achievement and aspirations, paid work and volunteer
Parental Involvement Laws 12
experience, and first born status will each be inversely associated with telling parents of the
abortion plan. Because age is associated with telling as well as with other indicators of maturity
and competence, the study controls for age to determine whether other indicators of competence
and maturity are associated with the decision to tell parents independently of age.
Although this paper hypothesizes that maturity and competence are inversely associated with
telling parents of one's abortion plans, there are situations in which this relationship is not expected
to hold. The characteristics of the parent/daughter relationship can affect the association between a
girl telling her parent(s) and her level of maturity and competency. For example, if a girl fears that
she risks abuse or abandonment if she tells her parents, she is unlikely to tell them, regardless of
her level of maturity and competence. Likewise, a girl who has an open and trusting relationship
with her parents in which sexual issues are freely discussed is likely to confide in her parents about
her pregnancy and abortion plan regardless of her level of maturity and competency (Resnick, et al.
1994; Zabin, Hirsch, Emerson, & Raymond, 1992). Researchers could control for these interaction
effects with indicators of the risk of abuse and abandonment and the girls' comfort levels in
discussing sexual matters with their parents. The current study, however, lacks such indicators.
Our inability to incorporate interaction effects in the statistical analysis is expected to lead to a
conservative estimate of the size of the relationships between indicators of maturity and
competence and whether a girl tells her parents of her abortion plans.
Sample and Design
The respondents were 111 minor girls who received abortions at four Iowa abortion clinics
between September 1994 and June 1995. Respondents ranged in age from 13 to 17; the mean age
was 16.2 years. The data were collected approximately one year prior to the enactment of a
parental notification law in Iowa. All four of the clinics were located in urban areas; none of the
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clinics required minor girls to inform their parents prior to obtaining an abortion.
The clinic staffs distributed a self-administered questionnaire to all girls aged 17 and
younger. The questionnaire was included among the paperwork a patient completed at the clinic
prior to obtaining an abortion. Girls were instructed at the top of the questionnaire that if they did
not want to fill out the survey, they should seal the blank questionnaire in the envelope provided
and return the package to clinic staff. Girls who chose to participate were also instructed to seal
their completed survey in their envelope and return it to staff. In addition to the 111 completed
questionnaires, 14 questionnaires were returned without responses, providing an 88% response
rate. The study was approved by the governing Human Subjects Committee.
The dependent variable was whether the young woman reported that a parent or guardian
knew of her plan to obtain an abortion. Respondents were asked, "Does at least one of your parents
or a guardian know that you are having an abortion?" with possible response categories being yes
and no. Respondents were also asked if their parents knew they were pregnant: "Does at least one
of your parents or a guardian know that you are pregnant?" with possible response categories being
yes and no.
The independent variables consisted of seven indicators of maturity and competence.
Response categories were collapsed for some variables because of small category sizes. The
independent variables included the girl's age (in years), year in school, self-reported average grades
over the previous two school years (mostly As; mostly Bs; mostly Cs, Ds and Fs), educational
aspiration (high school, trade or technical school; college; graduate or professional school),
whether she had a paid job during the previous year (yes; no), whether she had performed
volunteer work during the previous year (yes; no), and her birth order (oldest; middle; youngest;
Parental Involvement Laws 14
only child). Table 1 shows the percentage distributions for the variables before collapsing the
[Table 1 here]
Data Analysis Plan
Cross-tabulations were performed between the dependent variable (whether the girl had told a
parent or guardian about her plan to abort the pregnancy) and the independent variables (indicators
of maturity and competence). The chi-square (with correction for continuity) was employed as the
test of association when the independent variables were measured at the nominal level.
Spearman’s rho was used to measure associations when the independent variables were measured
at the ordinal level. The data were analyzed for the entire sample and then separately for 17-year-
old girls and for girls 16 and younger to determine which variables predicted who tells their parents
after controlling for age. All tests of statistical significance were two-tailed. Relationships were
considered statistically significant if their probability of occurring by chance was estimated to be
less than .05.
The majority (56%) of the respondents indicated that at least one parent or a guardian knew
that they were planning to abort their pregnancy; 44% of girls had told neither parent. With one
exception, the parents who had not been told of their daughter's abortion plans were also unaware
that their daughter was pregnant.
The results of the bivariate analyses (see Table 2) indicate that the relationship between age
and informing parents of one's abortion plan was in the expected direction (17-year-old girls were
less likely to tell than were younger girls) but was not statistically significant. Girls in the twelfth
grade were less likely to tell their parents than were girls in lower grades. Girls with average
grades in the A and B range were less likely to tell than were girls with average grades in the C, D,
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and F range. Girls who aspired to attend college or to obtain a graduate or professional degree
were less likely to tell than were girls with lower educational aspirations. There was no
relationship between having held a paid job in the previous year and whether a girl told. However,
almost all of the girls (95%) had held a job and so this variable had insufficient variation to be a
useful predictor. Girls who had volunteered during the previous year were less likely than girls
who had not volunteered to tell a parent about their decision to abort. Being the eldest child in the
family was associated with not telling; youngest and only children were most likely to tell,
although the findings only approached statistical significance (p = .08).
[Table 2 here]
Next, relationships between indicators of maturity and competence and telling parents were
examined separately for 17-year-old girls and for girls age 16 and younger. These results must be
approached cautiously, because they are based on smaller sample sizes and so only very large
effect sizes can show statistical significance. Associations between telling and the independent
variables were similar for 17-year-old girls and for girls 16 and younger (although not always
statistically significant), with some notable exceptions. The negative associations between telling
parents and year in school and educational aspirations were especially strong for 17-year-old girls.
Reported grade average was the only variable that was a strong and statistically significant
predictor of not telling parents for both 17 year olds and younger girls: girls who reported good and
excellent grades (Bs and As respectively) were considerably less likely to tell their parents than
were girls who reported poor grades (Cs and lower) . Having volunteered during the previous year
was not a strong predictor for girls age 17, whereas girls age 16 and younger who had volunteered
during the previous year were less than half as likely to tell a parent about their plan to abort than
were girls who had not volunteered during the previous year. The effect of birth order was
significant for girls 16 and younger, with firstborns considerably less likely to tell their parents than
Parental Involvement Laws 16
were middle, youngest, or only children. There was no pattern for 17-year-old girls.
This study found that girls who did not tell their parents they were obtaining an abortion were
more likely than girls who told to exhibit characteristics suggestive of maturity and competence.
Being a senior in high school, obtaining As and Bs in school, having high educational aspirations,
and volunteering were all associated with not telling parents of the abortion. These results
corroborate the findings of two previous studies that showed that girls who rated themselves as
mature and competent were less likely than other girls to tell their parents of their abortion plans
(Griffin-Carlson & Mackin, 1993; Rosen, 1980).
Self-reported grade average was most consistently associated with not telling parents of the
abortion: 17-year-old girls and younger girls with grades of As and Bs were less likely to tell their
parents than were girls with lower average grades. Although good grades in school do not
necessarily translate into sound judgment, they suggest a level of intellectual competence that
would assist a girl in her abortion decision and in negotiating the steps in the abortion process. The
association between educational aspirations and not telling parents about the abortion, however,
was limited to 17-year-old girls. This may be because 17-year-old girls have thought more
carefully and realistically than younger girls about their educational plans and so the plans are a
more reliable reflection of the 17-year-old girls' interests and motivation than they are for girls age
16 and younger.
Age, which has repeatedly and consistently been shown to be associated with not telling in
previous research, was not significantly associated with not telling in the current study, although
the magnitude of the effect was consistent with that of the other studies. The modest sample size
limited the power of the design to find moderate effects significant. The measurement of age could
be improved upon by using a more precise measure created from the girls' date of birth (year and
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month). This would allow researchers to distinguish between 17-year-old girls who are closer to
age 18 and 17-year-old girls who more recently turned 17. Using a more refined measure of age,
research could more accurately determine if age is truly less important a predictor of whether girls
tell than are year in school, average grades, educational aspirations, and engaging in volunteer
Seventeen-year-old girls who were seniors in high school were less likely to have told their
parents of the abortion than were 17-year-old juniors. There may be a good deal of maturation that
takes place during the year in which girls are 17 years old, and 17-year-old seniors are likely to be
closer to age 18 than are 17-year-old juniors. In addition, some of the 17-year-old juniors may
have been held back a year in school and so were lower-than-average achievers.
Girls who had volunteered during the previous year were less likely than girls who had not
volunteered to tell their parents of their plans to abort. This was especially the case for girls age 16
and younger. In addition to developing maturity and competence, volunteer work may have other
outcomes that lead to not telling. Girls may develop relationships with supportive adults in the
context of volunteering. If a girl has supportive access to an adult not associated with her family,
that person may be more attractive as a confidant than her parents. It may be that the supportive
relationships a girl develops through volunteering that accounts for the association between
volunteer work and whether a girl tells her parents about her decision to abort. This is an area for
Like volunteer work, paid jobs were expected to give a girl contacts and experiences outside
of her circle of family and friends that would facilitate her ability and confidence to obtain an
abortion without the help of her parents. This study found no evidence that having had a paid job
in the previous year was associated with telling one's parents of one's abortion plan, but because
almost all the girls reported having had a paid job during the previous year there was insufficient
Parental Involvement Laws 18
variation to test the hypothesis adequately. We recommend that in future studies on this topic, a
question regarding paid jobs should explicitly exclude babysitting, watering the plants of
vacationing neighbors, and similar chores in the neighborhood that do not link girls to the world
beyond their friends and family.
Birth order has been found to be a factor in family settings with respect to roles, parental
expectations, and responsibility. The tendency for first-born children to be least likely to tell their
parents was present among girls 16 and younger, but not among 17-year-old girls. Additional
research with larger samples is needed to examine this aspect further.
Figure 1 presents profiles of girls who told a parent about their plans to abort and girls who
did not. The vast majority of the girls who did not tell their parents received A's and B's in high
school (90%), aspired to college and beyond (96%), and engaged in volunteer work (82%). A key
point is that it is not the girls who want to avoid responsibility who are not inviting parental
participation, but rather those girls who are succeeding and fulfilling their responsibilities in their
schools (i.e., good grades) and communities (i.e., volunteer work). Given this profile, it is not
surprising that many judges grant the judicial bypass petitions of virtually all minor girls who come
before their court. In addition to a large proportion of young petitioners who are likely to be
sufficiently mature to undergo the abortion process without their parents' involvement, there is an
additional, perhaps overlapping group, for whom the judge may determine that the bypass is in the
minor's best interest. Thus, this research suggests that the judges who may be in error may be
judges who grant few or no petitions for judicial bypass rather than judges who grant a large
proportion of petitions.
[Figure 1 here]
Academic achievement and aspirations were proposed as indicators of maturity and
competence, but their association with not telling parents of an intended abortion may have
Parental Involvement Laws 19
additional interpretations. Girls who have high academic achievement and aspirations may be
more certain than other girls that they do not want to have the baby, because having a baby as a
teenager would jeopardize their academic and career goals. Greater certainty about delaying
childbearing, in turn, may make these girls less ambivalent about their abortion decision and less
likely to feel the need for parental input in the decision, as was found by Henshaw and Kost (1992).
In addition to indicating maturity and competence, the characteristics associated with not
telling parents of the abortion--good grades, high aspirations, volunteer work, and being the first
born--are characteristics that are typically a source of parental pride. It is likely that these girls do
not want to shatter their parents' positive opinion of them. This explanation is consistent with the
findings from previous research that the most common reason girls give for not telling their parents
about the abortion is that they do not want to disappoint their parents (Clary, 1982; Henshaw &
Kost, 1992). These girls may be more mature and competent than girls who tell, but this is not the
only explanation for why they do not tell their parents about their abortion plans.
Based on previous research on the reasons girls give for not telling their parents (Clary, 1982;
Henshaw & Kost, 1992), it is reasonable to conclude that some girls who did not tell their parents
about their abortion plans may have avoided doing so because they feared the punishment that
would result. Indeed, fear of parental anger may have led some girls to conform to parental
expectations, by obtaining good grades, for example. Therefore, we should not assume that girls
who displayed attributes of maturity and competence did not also have reason to fear telling their
parents. A study with a large sample size that asked girls about their reasons for not telling their
parents along with measures of girls' competence and maturity could shed more light on this
This is a sample from Iowa, a state more rural and less racially diverse than the United States
as a whole. Nevertheless, the proportion of Iowa respondents who did not tell their parents about
Parental Involvement Laws 20
the abortion was comparable to the findings of other studies. Slightly less than half (44%) of the
minor girls in this 1994-95 Iowa sample had not told their parents they were getting an abortion.
This is similar to the findings of a study conducted in Michigan in 1974-75, in which 43% of the
minor girls had not told their parents (Rosen, 1980), and the findings of two national studies, one
conducted in 1977 (Torres et al, 1980) and the other in 1991 (Henshaw & Kost, 1992). The former
study found that 45% of minor girls had not told and the latter found that 39% of the girls had not
told their parents of their abortion plans. The proportion of girls who did not tell their parents in
these four studies is strikingly consistent across time and geographic area. Therefore, despite
demographic differences between Iowa and the rest of the country, the similarities in the
proportions who do not tell suggests that the results of the Iowa sample, which shows a relationship
between educational achievement and aspirations and volunteer work with not telling a parent, may
represent a more general phenomenon.
Policy implications and recommendations for policy practice
The NASW issues policy statements on multiple topics to guide social workers in their policy
advocacy. With respect to adolescent pregnancy and parenting, NASW supports "safe, legal,
affordable, and confidential health and reproductive health services, including sex education,
contraception, pregnancy testing, abortion ..." (p. 13, NASW, 2006). And although "health
services for youths must be provided in the context of the youth's peer group, family, and
community" (NASW, 2006, p. 6), "youth health services should be provided in a professional and
confidential manner with strict adherence to the concepts of self-determination and client
confidentiality" (NASW, 2006, p. 6). Parental involvement laws clearly violate self-determination
and client confidentiality of minors.
One might ask, why should social workers be concerned that parental involvement laws
threaten adolescent girls' self-determination and access to confidential services given that the
Parental Involvement Laws 21
judicial bypass exists to exempt mature and competent girls (as well as girls for whom parental
involvement is not in their best interest)? There are a number of drawbacks to relying on the
judicial bypass process to ensure that adolescents' rights to confidentiality and self-determination
are respected. First, access to a judicial bypass is uneven across geographical areas. Many judges
recuse themselves from hearing bypass cases. Consequently, girls in rural counties may have to
travel to a distant county to initiate the bypass process. Second, the outcome of a minor's petition
depends greatly on the court in which the petition is filed and the judge who hears her case
(Donovan, 1983; Jacobs, 2005; Silverstein, 1999; Silverstein & Speitel, 2002-2003). Specifically,
judges may be influenced by their personal views on the morality of abortion and the rights of
children vis-a-vis parents. Third, girls may be too intimidated to go before a judge, especially if
they perceive vast cultural and class differences between themselves and judges or if previous
experiences have led them to perceive the judicial system as threatening (Blum, Resnick, & Stark,
1990; Donovan, 1983). Finally, an important aspect to the seeking of a judicial bypass is the girl’s
access to full and accurate information about the judicial bypass court procedure. Interviews with
court personnel in several states have indicated that county clerks and other court personnel are
frequently ill prepared to explain the bypass process to minors, do not know that minors have the
right to a court-appointed lawyer, and sometimes are even unaware that minors have the right to
petition the court for a bypass (Jacobs, 2005; Liptak, 2005; Silverstein, 1999; Silverstein & Speitel,
One way to increase minors' access to the judicial bypass is to make needed information and
forms easily available through the Internet. The State of Colorado Court website provides
complete instructions for how to obtain a judicial bypass in that state, including a detailed
description of the court procedures and downloadable versions of every form that might be needed
throughout the process (Colorado Judicial Branch, 2005). Jane's Due Process, a nonprofit
Parental Involvement Laws 22
reproductive choice advocacy organization, provides a similar service for minor girls in the state of
Texas (Jane's Due Process, 2005). Some other states have websites that explain the bypass process,
but do not provide downloadable forms needed to negotiate the judicial bypass itself (see, e.g.,
Planned Parenthood of Michigan, 2006). Social workers in other states with judicial bypass can
work to make similar access to information available to minors in their states. This remedy to the
inadequacy of information, however, assumes that the girl has access to the Internet.
Likewise, access to the forms on the Internet does not address the ignorance of the court
personnel. Pressure may need to be placed on the judiciary system so that their staff becomes
knowledgeable about the right of minors to file for this proceeding. If the court personnel is
lacking in basic knowledge of the judicial bypass, a girl seeking an abortion without the consent of
her parents may find herself in an interaction where she has to assertively advocate to receive the
forms, or to file for a judicial bypass, or both. This places a significant burden upon the minor who
is trying to access this right.
Increased access to the judicial bypass, however, does not address the problem of judicial
bias. Legislative efforts are underway to make the judicial bypass process more transparent,
primarily by requiring the collection and publication of data on the numbers of petitions filed, their
outcomes, and the reasons for the disposition (Guttmacher Institute, 2005; Texas House of
Representatives Committee on State Affairs, 2005). Although a more transparent judicial bypass
process would, in theory, be just as useful for advocates of the rights of minors as for their
opponents, it is being resisted by the former. Many advocates for minors' rights and abortion rights
more generally are concerned that if this information is made available to the public, judges who
grant a high percentage of bypasses and guardian ad litems who advocate on behalf of minor girls
during the bypass procedure will become targets for violence perpetrated by abortion foes (Texas
House of Representatives Committee on State Affairs, 2005).
Parental Involvement Laws 23
Social workers and social work students can advocate for modifying existing laws and
actively oppose proposed restrictive legislation by working in coalition with other groups that have
a similar policy agenda. This would be in keeping with social work's professional values of client
self-determination and confidentiality. Given widespread public support of parental involvement
laws, however, it may be politically expedient to strive to reduce a given law's restrictiveness rather
than to abolish the legislation altogether. There is a great deal of variation across states in the
severity of parental involvement laws. The following examples indicate the variety of ways
parental involvement laws may be modified:
- Mississippi and North Dakota require consent from both parents, whereas Colorado and
Georgia require notification of only one parent (Guttmacher Institute, 2007). Thus,
advocates could work towards the requirement that only one parent be notified.
- Under Wisconsin law, an aunt, uncle, or sibling at least 25 years old may give consent in
lieu of a parent (Planned Parenthood, 2006). Iowa allows a grandparent to be notified
instead of a parent. The inclusion of adult family members as alternatives to parents is a
positive measure, but it is less useful for minor girls who have few or no adult relatives
other than their parents.
- The State of Maine allows the physician to waive the requirement of parental consent if he
or she deems the minor to be competent to consent and if the minor undergoes counseling
(Planned Parenthood, 2006). A professionally trained counselor or social worker, perhaps
working in collaboration with the physician, would be a better arrangement than relying on
a judge or a doctor to assess the minor's best interest. This would also have the advantage
of potentially alleviating parental concerns while maintaining minor girls' right to privacy
- The age at which girls are no longer required to involve their parent(s) is 17 in South
Parental Involvement Laws 24
Carolina and 16 in Delaware (Guttmacher Institute, 2006) even though the age of majority
in these states is 18. Legal scholars Silverstein and Speitel (2002-2003) argue the age of
obtaining an abortion without parental involvement should be no higher than the age of
consent to agree to have sex, which is 16 in most states (Avert, 2006).
As in any legislative initiative, social workers should be knowledgeable about the various actors on
this political landscape when conducting advocacy efforts. Revisiting parental involvement laws
could potentially open up the political environment for opponents of abortion to succeed in
securing greater restrictions. Thus, just as advocates for adolescent rights can work to reduce the
restrictiveness of parental involvement laws in a number of ways, so too can opponents of abortion
work to increase the restrictions on access to abortion among minors.
If a girl is mature and understands the consequences of her decision, she is legally entitled to
obtain an abortion without her parents' involvement, if that is her wish. The findings of this study
support the conclusions of previous research that the vast majority of minor girls who choose not to
involve their parents in the abortion decision are mature and competent and, moreover, are
fulfilling their responsibilities in their school and communities. Parental involvement laws are
unnecessarily restrictive and should be resisted by social workers because they violate adolescents'
right to confidential services and self-determination.
Parental Involvement Laws 25
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Parental Involvement Laws 28
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Table 1: Percentage Distributions of Sample Characteristics (N = 111)
Year in School
12th or High School Grad 27
Dropped out 3
Mostly Ds and Fs 5%
Mostly Cs 23
Mostly Bs 41
Mostly As 32
< Trade/Tech/High School 16%
Graduate Degree 35
Had a Paid Job in Past Year
Volunteered in Past Year
Only Child 7
Table 2: Percent of Girls Who Told Parent, by Indicators of Maturity and Competence and by Age
Indicators All Girls 16 and Younger 17 Years Old
<15 62% (24)
16 65% (34)
17 47% (53)
rs = -.15
Year in School
<9th 69% (16) 69% (16)
10th 65% (23) 65% (23)
11th 62% (37) 53% (17) 70% (20)
12th 31% (32) 100% ( 1) 28% (31)
rs = -.28** rs = -.10 χ2 = 6.67**
Dropped out 100% ( 3)
Mostly Cs, Ds, Fs 84% (31) 94% (16) 73% (15)
Mostly Bs 44% (45) 48% (25) 40% (20)
Mostly As 46% (35) 59% (17) 33% (18)
rs = -.28** rs = -.27* rs = -.30*
Table 2 (cont.):
Indicators All Girls 16 and Younger 17 Years Old
< Trade/Tech/HS 89% (18) 82% (11) 100% ( 7)
College 48% (54) 52% (23) 42% (31)
Graduate degree 54% (39) 67% (24) 33% (15)
rs = -.16 rs = -.04 rs = -.33*
χ2 = 10.03** χ2 = 2.98
Volunteered in Past Year
No 78% (40) 96% (22) 56% (18)
Yes 44% (71) 44% (36) 43% (35)
χ2 = 10.55** χ2 = 13.25*** χ2 = 0.77
Youngest 64% (42) 76% (25) 50% (18)
Middle 50% (30) 62% (16) 36% (14)
Oldest 42% (31) 31% (13) 47% (17)
rs = - .19 rs = - .35** rs = .03
Only child 86% ( 8)
Note: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001. n refers to the case base for the percentages. rs = Spearman's rho.
Figure 1: Profiles of Girls Who Told and Girls Who Did Not Tell Parents about the Abortion.
Girls who told a parent: Girls who did not tell a parent:
16% were seniors in high school 44% were seniors in high school
58% got mostly A's and B's in school 90% got mostly A's and B's in school
74% aspired to college or beyond 96% aspired to college or beyond
50% engaged in volunteer work 82% engaged in volunteer work