No sooner did I make my previous post than the Bush campaign launched TV and radio ads attacking John Kerry’s record on teen access to birth control and abortion. The new ads state that “Kerry voted against parental notification for teenage abortions” and “voted to allow schools to hand out the ‘morning after pill’ without parents’ knowledge.” The ads continue: “He voted to take control away from parents by taking away their right to know. John Kerry has his priorities. The question is, are they yours?”
This is the second Bush ad on abortion. The first was an ad criticizing Kerry for voting against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, called Laci and Conner’s Law, which made an injury to a fetus a separate Federal crime.
As predicted, the Bush campaign is going to talk about teens and Laci’s law, and about values. Kerry has been talking values too. But he is going to lose the values debate unless he reframes it.
The Kerry response to the newest Bush ad was to say that the parental notification law would put some teens at risk for abuse. We’ve been saying that for decades; it’s true; and it doesn’t work. Three-quarters of the American public favor parental notification laws before their teen daughter can have an abortion. Taking this tried and true route is a fast road to political disaster for Kerry— parents don’t want to be assumed to be child abusers.
Bush is trying to portray himself on the side of parents. The ads talk about protecting parental rights and their right to know, just as the Laci ad talked about protecting women from abuse. Kerry has got to get on the side of parents. The political math is simple: parents vote; teens don’t.
Parents and their teenage daughters (and sons) sometimes have different views as to the desirability of a pregnancy. The key point to remember is that the parent’s teenage daughter is the parent’s vehicle for having grandchildren, which is something that virtually every parent wants. The conflict between parent and teen daughter is then mostly one of timing. Some parents, and I have seen it first hand, want their teen daughter to give birth as soon as spossible. Other parents want the teen to grow up, mature, finish her education, get married, get settled, get a job and then have children (or at least attain as many of these as possible before having children).
Teens are not passive bystanders to their parents’ wishes. Some teens want, or think they want, to give birth early and others want to do so later. When the wishes of the teen and parents are in sync and they are communicating, then there is no issue—the teen can have the child or have an abortion with her parents by her side. The conflict arises when the teen and the parents have different expectations and plans. Either the parents want a child later and the teen wants one now, or vice versa. Whose wishes should control in these situations?
If, as the Bush campaign says, it is the parents who should control, then the parents can force a teen to give birth or have an abortion, no matter what the teen’s wishes. And if the teen controls, then the teen can give birth or have an abortion, no matter what the parents’ wishes. In this latter case, the parents are losing a grandchild if the teen has an abortion, or they are, in many if not most cases, taking on raising a grandchild if the teen gives birth, no matter what their personal or financial situation.
Can the teen’s wishes control here? Does the teen have the requisite mental and emotional capability and maturity to make a decision of this magnitude?
Notice that the Bush campaign and the “pro-life” campaign for parental notification and consent laws apply only to the abortion decision. They carefully sidestep the issue of childbirth. This is the Kerry opportunity.
1. Make an equivalence between the decision to give birth and have an abortion. There is no difference between the maturity and mental and emotional capability to do either. In fact, I could argue, it takes greater maturity to make the decision to have a child and certainly to be a parent. Stop the Bush campaign in its tracks and force them to admit that they would favor giving parents the right to force a teen to have an abortion, as well as to have a child.
2. And be on the side of parents. The teenage daughter here is the parent— she is the one giving birth, or not. Her parents are the putative grandparents. Recognize the conflict. Say that there should be one standard, not a double standard. Say that the decision to have a baby or an abortion is difficult and that some teens have the maturity to do both and some do not, just as some legal adults may or may not. Support a means to test for this maturity and if the teen flunks, then bring in the judicial system.
In states like New York where there is no mandated parental involvement, this is what the system looks like: a social worker, nurse or physician determines if the teen has the maturity to make the abortion decision. If she does not and if she will not bring in her parents, then we call in Family Court. Kerry should develop a proposal that would respect the parents’ feelings and rights, as well as those of the putative teen mother.
3. The value to be emphacized is successful reproduction–having healthy and wanted children and grandchildren. This can put the values debate on a new playing field, one that Kerry can win.