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Newman On-Line: Grassroots Democracy

Fri, 24 Sep 2004

Newman On-Line: Grassroots Democracy

This week, Newman On-Line looks at the controversial issue of underage abortion, and asks if parents have the right to know.

Last March, AC Neilson conducted a survey of 1,000 people aged 15 years and over, which asked: “For a female under the age of 16 years considering an abortion, do you agree or disagree that her parents or guardians must be notified before any decision to proceed is made?”

Of the respondents, 76 percent agreed that a parent or guardian should be notified, 16 percent disagreed, four percent said neither, three percent didn’t know and one percent refused to answer. Interestingly, 51 percent strongly agreed that parents must be notified, while five percent strongly disagreed.

Laws relating to children are presently contained in the Guardianship Act, to be replaced by Labour’s Care of Children Bill. Section 25A of the Guardianship Act provides for young women under the age of 16 years to undergo an abortion without parental consent. That provision has now been re-written as clause 37 of the Care of Children Bill.

A proposed amendment to this Bill has recently been tabled, which requires that the consent of a parent or caregiver must be given before a child under 16 can have an abortion, unless she appeals to the Family Court or District Court for a waiver. In light of the fact that this issue is going to be debated by Parliament in the very near future – and that it is being treated as a conscience vote issue – I would like to outline the situation in my column this week and ask for your view.

The present law regarding a girl’s right to choose whether to have an abortion – without parental consent – arose in the late 1970s, as a result of recommendations of the 1977 Royal Commission into Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion. The law has remained largely unchanged since, making abortion the only surgical procedure to which under-16-year-olds can consent. All other surgical procedures for children under 16 require a parent or guardian’s consent.

As a result of the existing law, each year, a few hundred under-age pregnant teenage girls have abortions: last year, some 346 girls under the age of 16 had an abortion; this was a 30 percent increase on the 1980 figure of 212.

While some of these girls will have informed their parents before the abortion, others will not. Medical practitioners claim that, when consulted by under-age pregnant teenagers seeking an abortion, normal procedure is to counsel these girls to tell their parents and seek their support. But they are not bound to inform the parents.

Doctors are very concerned about any proposed law changes in this area. They worry that, if they are compelled to tell parents that their daughter is pregnant, girls who feel their parents may be abusive may seek illegal or dangerous abortions.

A key issue for the doctors is patient confidentiality. The New Zealand Medical Association and the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners believe that confidentiality is at the core of ethical, safe and effective medical practice, and that every patient must be absolutely certain that their privacy will be respected.

They, therefore, see a law change that undermines their right to encourage a pregnant teenager to tell her parents – but not to compel them to breach their ethical standards – as an extremely serious matter.

Therein lies the difficulty with this issue.

On one hand is a vulnerable teenager who, on finding herself pregnant – and afraid to tell her parents – has gone to a doctor to arrange an abortion, on the understanding that he is bound by his professional ethics not to breach her privacy. On the other hand there are parents who – often completely oblivious to the crisis in their daughter’s life – would dearly love to be there to support her in her time of need, but are being deceived by their daughter, the doctor and other involved professionals.

Further, because of the pressure, their daughter may be uncharacteristically sullen, defiant or belligerent. Rather than her parents giving her the unconditional love, support and understanding she needs, they may be engaged in blaming her and arguing instead.

This whole issue first came to my attention when, as a new Member of Parliament, I was contacted by a mother who was outraged that a local high school counsellor had arranged for her 14 year-old daughter to be given a ‘morning after’ pill by the local medical centre, without her knowledge. The only reason she found out was that the account for the prescription and visit was inadvertently sent to her, instead of the school. Up until that time, she had no idea her daughter even had a boyfriend, let alone was experimenting with sex!

It turned out that her daughter and friend had been sneaking out at night – unbeknown to the parents of the girls or boys involved. But, rather than being informed by the school or doctor that her daughter was engaging in such dangerous activities – so that the family could address the issues – there was a conspiracy of deceit and secrecy.

There is no doubt that teenage years are not easy for either parent or child. It is a time when parents must accept their responsibility to guide, love and support their child – no matter how difficult that can be – and young people need to accept that there are acceptable boundaries to behaviour and consequences to actions. What neither party needs during this challenging time is for the State to interfere by undermining and damaging that relationship.

If you have a view on whether the present law should stay as it is, or should be changed, please fill in the survey below … and pass it on to interested others so they can vote as well. The results will be published next week.

Question: Do you support a change to the law so that parents or caregivers must be notified if a girl under the age of 16 wants to have an abortion? Yes No

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