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Mother, May I?

Should teenagers have to ask permission for information on abortion or contraception? Backers of the new 'parental rights' movement want that--and more.

July 31, 1996|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

The printed sign propped on the reception desk at Valley Community Clinic in North Hollywood is aimed at the nervous teenagers who often populate the waiting room.

It reminds all clients to complete their paperwork before seeing a doctor or nurse practitioner, but with the young in mind concludes: ". . . Remember--we keep our mouths shut."

Although publicly funded family planning clinics must, by law, urge minors to consult their parents about health matters, it is the guarantee of confidentiality, say clinic directors, that enables millions of American teenagers to seek reproductive health services.

According to one study, an estimated 256,000 unintended teenage pregnancies are prevented each year by teens' use of contraceptives--usually obtained without their parents' knowledge or consent. Thus, 110,000 births, 112,000 abortions and several maternal deaths are avoided, researchers say.

But what is being hailed as a successful system by family planning organizations is being portrayed as a failed social program by some conservative and religious groups. And the battle is being played out in state legislatures across the country, where the two sides are at odds over the burgeoning "parental rights" movement.

In essence, parental rights legislation would require such things as written permission for a minor to seek any education, counseling or health care deemed sensitive to family relationships or values.

Even though few laws have been changed, this has been a banner year for parental rights proponents. Bills that give parents more control have been introduced in 28 states, up from 12 such proposals in 1995, according to Of the People Foundation, a Virginia-based group founded four years ago to advance parental rights legislation.

In California, a bill that would have required mandatory, written parental consent before minors could participate in school sex education classes sailed through the Assembly before being halted by protests in a Senate subcommittee.

In the nation's capital, the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act, which would give parents a free hand to legally challenge virtually any services for children--including education and health care--is still under consideration. The proposed act is sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.).

And, in Colorado, a group called the Coalition for Parental Responsibility says it is optimistic it will have enough signatures by the Aug. 5 deadline to put the first-ever parental rights initiative--an amendment to the state's constitution--on the November ballot. The wording of the amendment, similar to the proposed federal law, would bar practices that "usurp the right of a parent to direct the upbringing of the child."

"Fifty-five thousand signatures are needed. We intend to go way above that and have close to 80,000 signatures," says Greg Erken, Of the People's executive director.

"A victory in Colorado would be electrifying," says Of the People founder Jeffrey Bell. "We have laid a foundation in a lot of other states. We have legal sponsors in 28 states, so there is going to be a lot of knowledge about this."

Bell calls the parental rights movement a "wake-up call" to Americans. High rates of juvenile crime, violence, substance abuse and pregnancy demand that parents become reengaged in their children's lives in a more authoritarian manner, he says.

"I think this [movement] is a healthy thing," Bell says. "There would seem to be, on the surface, a conflict between parents' rights and parental responsibility. But I think if you get one, you'll get more of the other."

But all the nation will get under this scenario is a whole lot of trouble, say the legions of opponents of the movement. They predict a host of lawsuits will arise as parents feel free to challenge almost any service provided to their children without their explicit written permission. This could alter textbook selection in schools; school-based assessments, vision and hearing tests and counseling; minors' access to health services; even safety regulations requiring the use of car seats and bicycle helmets, critics charge.

Health, education and child welfare leaders are aghast that the trend has picked up steam under the noses of an unknowing public and overworked legislators.

Organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, National Education Assn., American Psychological Assn., American Civil Liberties Union and the Child Welfare League of America have protested the legislation.

Opponents also say they are worried that the movement will succeed because it sounds reasonable on its face.

"Everyone says, 'What's wrong with parental rights?' " says Peter Kostmayer, executive director of Zero Population Growth. "The danger here is that it sounds fine on the surface, but there is a hidden agenda."

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