By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA — Montanans in November will face a critical referendum regarding a teen girl’s right to abortion services, and some of the state’s leading pro-choice groups are ignoring a key element of the measure to sway voters against it.
Officials with the groups, however, say they’re being perfectly forthright, and the proposal is irreparably flawed.
At stake in Legislative Referendum 120 is whether parents have the right to know if their underage — younger than 18— daughter accesses abortion services. The 2011 Republican-controlled Legislature, unable to pass such a law with Gov. Brian Schweitzer in the governor’s mansion, instead appealed directly to voters, placing the proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Approval would mean an underage woman must inform her parents of the decision to undergo an abortion, and the parents would grant consent. Rejecting the law would allow underage teens to access abortions without notifying their parents.
Montanans for Safe and Healthy Families, a consortium of reproductive rights groups in the state including the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and NARAL Pro-Choice Montana, says the law is “dangerous” and would chip away at a woman’s right to an abortion. The group also tells supporters and voters the proposed law would prevent young women from unstable or unsafe homes from accessing abortions.
“The measure would require young women to notify a parent before accessing abortion care, even if they come from violent, abusive, or neglectful homes,” the group writes on its website, dedicated solely to the issue.
That line, however, misleads voters and offers less than the whole story. In fact, the measure grants exceptions for young women who might fear parental retribution or abuse.
To gain that waiver, a teen girl seeking an abortion would need to show evidence that her home life is unstable or otherwise dangerous, and that her personal safety could be jeopardized by involving her parents.
Section 8 of the measure delivers specifics on procedure:
The court shall issue an order authorizing the petitioner to consent to an abortion without the notification of a parent or guardian if the court finds that:
(a) there is evidence of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse of the petitioner by one or both parents, a guardian, or a custodian; or
(b) the notification of a parent or guardian is not in the best interests of the petitioner.
The proposal requires the identity of any young woman petitioning the court be kept under wraps.
Even with the judicial bypass included, some feel the law doesn’t meet the best interests of Montana’s youth.
On the MontanaWatchdog.org Facebook page, Shirley Hanson of Laurel said the issue’ is not that clear-cut.
“Regardless of what we wish the relationship between children and their parents would be, the fact is that girls may be too frightened of parents’ reaction to confide their decision to terminate a pregnancy,” Hanson wrote.
“And horrendous as it is, girls have been victims of incest and rape by family member and should not have to be victimized again from society.”
Niki Zupanic, public policy director for the Montana chapter of the ACLU, seconds Hanson.
“We’ve never disputed that this measure includes a waiver process, but it is disingenuous to say that the waiver process is a viable option for many of the young women affected by this measure,” Zupanic wrote in an email to Watchdog.org.
“Many young women in violent, abusive, and neglectful homes lack the resources, time, means, or ability to travel long distances to appear before a judge during school or work hours.”
Julianna Crowley with NARAL Pro-Choice Montana says the groups aren’t misleading because the website lacks a mention of the waiver section. Instead, she believes the waiver would not actually provide an easier path to abortion for abused or troubled teens.
“We don’t have to address the waiver because it’s not good enough,” she said Tuesday, adding that the exemption still places many obstacles ahead of teens looking to make a life-altering reproductive decision.
“It is definitely not enough and it doesn’t ensure the health and safety of that young woman.”
Jeff Laszloffy, head of the Montana Family Foundation, contends the waiver process would help the state root out parental sexual abuse by allowing teen girls a place to quietly and safely tell an adult in power — a youth court judge.
Laszloffy, a robust LR-120 supporter, says the waiver process was included as a “workaround,” but admits he’s not sure a young woman could navigate the court proceedings while simultaneously handling school responsibilities.
“I’m not sure how what would work,” he told Watchdog.org Wednesday.
Instead of using the bypass, Laszloffy hopes young women will confide in parents when making such crucial choices.
“We just really believe parents need to be involved,” Laszloffy urged.
Still, the Montana ACLU contends the bypass is simply smoke and mirrors for vulnerable teen girls.
“The bottom line is that the waiver process is an empty promise for young women in dire conditions and, overall, this measure will do more harm than good by pushing many young women to delay medical care or put themselves in harm’s way,” Zupanic concluded.
Contact Dustin Hurst via email at Dustin@Watchdog.org or via Twitter using the @DustinHurst handle.