By Melinda Széll
They say luck comes in threes. At least, that’s what Rob Pennington is hoping. Pennington is the adviser to the pro-life campaign pushing for a parental-notification initiative on the California ballot this November.
Nicknamed “Sarah’s Law” in memorial of a 15-year-old Texas teen who died from complications of an abortion her parents did not know about, the initiative follows in the footsteps of Propositions 73 and 85, which failed in 2005 and 2006.
Ever since the ruling of Roe v. Wade in 1973, California teens have had the same legal access to abortion as adults. Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice advocates are working to defeat the initiative and maintain the status quo.
The initiative, at 381,862 signatures as of Jan. 28, would amend the state constitution to require a doctor to notify the parents of a minor seeking an abortion 48 hours before the procedure. The required number of signatures to qualify for the ballot is 694,354, according to the Office of the Attorney General.
“I expect it will qualify, as it did the first two times,” said Pennington, director of Parents Right to Know California and ordained Protestant minister. “Persistence is everything.”
Over 30 states currently have parental notification laws, Pennington said. The Pregnancy Resource Center of Santa Cruz, although it does not provide abortion, offers equally anonymous and confidential services for minors and adults. Clients of the center range from 13 to 57, according to executive director Ted Pickerrell. Friends of Sarah, the organization behind the initiative, argues that as minors cannot receive flu shots, aspirin or have cavities filled without parental notification, abortion should be no exception.
“They say knowledge is power,” Pennington said. “If that is true, then California parents are powerless.”
Like the previous propositions, this initiative allows a girl who fears abuse from her parents to seek a judicial bypass. Opponents of the initiative point to the judicial system as intimidating and cumbersome for a teenager to navigate. However, the current initiative also provides an option to notify a non-parent family member, such as an adult sibling or grandparent.
This option, though, would require the abortion provider to file a child protective services report, which would include the minor’s written statement that she fears “physical, sexual, or severe emotional abuse” from a parent, based on a history of such behavior.
Campaigns have used print, television and radio as well as phone banking and going door-to-door. The supporters of this initiative are pro-life individuals who also backed the Propositions 73 and 85. On the other side, Planned Parenthood uses its separate electoral arm to address political issues.
“We were able to reach the voters,” said Buu Thai, public affairs director of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, of 2006’s Proposition 85, which failed 46 to 54 percent. “We had a good message and emphasized teen safety.”
First-year Alice Nicholls sees the role of organizations such as Students for Reproductive Justice (SRJ), of which she is a member, as to inform otherwise apathetic or unaware students of such legislation.
The initiative, officially named “Child and Teen Safety and Stop Predators Act” intends to raise awareness of statutory rape by older men. According to Pennington, these men use abortion to hide their evidence of their involvement with younger girls, unbeknownst to parents. By involving parents in the dialogue, notification would be a step in the right direction, he said.
This initiative is not the solution, said Kathy Kneer, CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California.
“These laws don’t do what they promise to do,” Kneer said. The threat of sexual predators is used to manipulate voters, she said. She pointed out that the initiative does not address the issue of older men who do not take teenagers to have an abortion — or even those who have sex without getting the teen girl pregnant.
“It’s clear the agenda is stopping abortion,” Kneer said.
Pennington too sees the issue as larger than just parental notification.
“All the mores we once had about sex are now out the window,” he said, comparing the television program “I Love Lucy” to today’s “Friends” as an example of sex in modern culture. “So how do you clean up the mess? Unfortunately, abortion has become the newspaper at the bottom of the birdcage. It catches the droppings, when we actually ending producing children from sex gone wild.”
Students who have grown up post Roe v. Wade should not take their access to options for granted, Nicholls said.
“We are definitely going backwards in time, slowly by chipping away at what freedom we have so far,” Nicholls said.
While the movement behind the initiative has less funding than Planned Parenthood, it has a head start, Kneer said.
“It’s a knee-jerk reaction: ‘Of course parents should know,’” Kneer said. “We have the burden and responsibility of explaining the dangers.”
Kneer worries for the girls who fear abuse for telling their parents.
“In a perfect world, a 15-year-old should be able to tell her mom that she’s getting an abortion so that her mom can be there to support her throughout such a hard time,” Nicholls said, “but not everyone has that situation. You never know how a parent will react.”
Stephanie Rado, organizer of SRJ, emphasized the importance of privacy, when pregnancy is a personal subject more emotionally charged, often tinged with shame, than a flu shot or cavity.
“Nobody sets out thinking, ‘I want to have an abortion,’” Rado said. “The proposition itself threatens teens more than anything.”
Pennington considers the idea of parental backlash potentially caused by the initiative to be fear-mongering by pro-choice groups.
“What they do is trot out the extreme exception to the rule and they multiple that as the rule,” he said, citing the example of a father who beats his daughter when he finds about her planned abortion. “That’s such an extreme case that’s it’s almost never going to happen.”
Both sides said they are protecting teenagers.
“It’s not about whether it’s one, 10, 100 or 1000 teens,” Kneer said. “The other teens do tell their parents. This is for the teens who can’t tell their parents.”
The deadline for signature collection is April 22. If it meets the guidelines, the initiative will appear as a proposition on the November ballot in California.