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So, Whose Right Is It Anyway?

Courts: Rosa Hartford drove a 13-year-old across state lines to end a pregnancy and now she may go to jail. The case has pitted parental rights against abortion rights.


What was Rosa Hartford thinking that morning last August when she took a 13-year-old girl to New York to have an abortion? That's what a small-town Pennsylvania jury pondered last week before convicting the 40-year-old mother of six of a felony--a verdict Hartford's attorney called the first of its kind.

Was she, as Hartford's attorneys suggest, only trying to help a young woman realize her constitutionally guaranteed right to end what could have been a traumatic pregnancy?

Or, as the prosecutor says, were her own interests at stake? Hartford was well aware that her 19-year-old son could be the father, said Max Little, the district attorney in Sullivan County. "It almost goes without saying what some of the motivations probably were," he said in a telephone interview.

More to the point, Little successfully argued that Hartford had no right to take the girl anywhere. Hartford was convicted under a state law, usually used in parental abductions, that makes it a crime to knowingly take a child under 18 from a parent without permission. It is believed to be the first time such a law has been used against an adult helping a minor obtain an abortion.

Potentially facing prison, Hartford may appeal the decision depending on her sentence, said her attorney, Kathryn Kolbert of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York.

Meanwhile, the quirky case, pitting parental rights against abortion rights, has illuminated the national patchwork of parental consent laws and brought attention to tiny Sullivan County, a rural community in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The county has 6,100 people and "nothing to do," Kolbert said. "There's a lot of sex, a lot of drinking and drugs."

The sex between Hartford's son and the then 12-year-old girl was illegal, although consensual, and he served several months of a prison sentence for the statutory rape, the attorneys said.

According to court documents, the girl discovered she was pregnant last summer. She opted for abortion after talking with her older sister, several friends and her former boyfriend, the alleged father. Kolbert said she asked them all not to tell her mother, a divorced nurse and mother of three who remarried this year.

Instead, the young girl talked to Hartford's 19-year-old stepdaughter, Melissa. (The Hartfords, who live in Shunk, have a blended family, with three children from her husband's first marriage, two from hers, and one of their own. Hartford works cleaning houses.) Melissa made an appointment for the girl 60 miles away at the nearest abortion provider, a clinic in Binghampton, N.Y, where unlike Pennsylvania, parental consent is not required for a minor to obtain an abortion.

Thousands of teenagers are crossing state lines to obtain abortions due to such laws, as well as the lack of providers, Kolbert said. There are fewer than five abortion providers in some states, including Mississippi and North Dakota and South Dakota. What's more, 38 states have adopted laws requiring young women to obtain consent from or notify one or both parents prior to an abortion, but only 28 states are enforcing them. In California, a parental consent law was passed but blocked by a state court.

On Aug. 31, the day of the appointment, the girl left home early in the morning. Instead of going to school, she went to a store where she thought Melissa would pick her up. But the plans had changed and instead Hartford and a friend took her to New York for the abortion.

Meanwhile, authorities said, the girl's mother had found a note saying her daughter would be going to a friend's house after school. When she called the school to leave a message saying she wanted her to come home instead, she learned she was not there. "An alarming number of stories were developed, none of which were all that consistent," said Dist. Atty. Little. The mother called the police.

When she finally learned her daughter's whereabouts that day, she was not opposed to the abortion per se, according to court records.

But Little said, "The bottom line here is, this was a 120-mile car ride. The girl was supposed to be in school. Mrs. Hartford and another man who went with them, had never even met this girl's mother, never spoken on the phone. Even if there wasn't an abortion, the parental interest was pretty strong."

Under the state law, adults do not need parental permission for transporting children age 14 and older under certain circumstances: if the trip is less than 24 hours, if the child requested the trip, was not enticed and if no crimes were involved. "Ironically, my client thought she was 14," Kolbert said.

But Kolbert said, "The reality is, if she were going to the dentist, I don't think there would have been a prosecution. It would never have come up."

She believes the consequences of the verdict are far-reaching. "The biggest harm of the case is the ability of minors to exercise reproductive choices," she said.

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