American Civil Liberties Union Pamphlet
NO WAY OUT: Young, Pregnant and Trapped by the Law
In the prime of her life, Becky Bell, a 17-year-old Indiana teenager, died
of a massive septic infection from a botched illegal abortion. At the
time, Indiana required that a young woman obtain the consent of a parent or
a judge before having an abortion. To avoid "disappointing" her parents by
telling them that she was pregnant, Becky did what hundreds of thousands of
women did before legalized abortion -- she bought "medical care" in the back
While Becky's story has gained national attention, she is but one young
woman among many who have suffered the tragic consequences of these onerous
state laws. Requiring a young woman to involve her parents or a judge
before obtaining an abortion may sound harmless at first, for it would be
better if every young woman could discuss an unwanted pregnancy with loving
and caring parents. Sadly, as the stories detailed below demonstrate, too
many parents react with hostility or violence to the news of their
Instead of addressing the problems of troubled families and providing
quality, confidential health care to the young women who desperately need
assistance with their unwanted pregnancies, 15 states are currently
enforcing laws that punish those who simply cannot involve their parents in
their abortion decision ─ with tragic consequences for all.
Death, Injury, and Family Violence
Self-Induced and Illegal Abortion
More than half of the young women seeking abortions tell at least one
parent about their decision. The younger the woman, the more likely her
parents are to know about, and even to have suggested, the abortion.2
Nevertheless, mandatory notification laws will cause some young women, who
are unable to tell their parents about their pregnancies, to seek medical
care from unlicensed, illegal abortionists or to attempt self-abortion --
risking death or permanent injury.
In 1990, clinic counselors in Louisiana received calls from pregnant young
women who had tried to self-abort by throwing themselves down flights of
stairs or taking dangerous drugs. In several cases, teenagers had
ingested quinine or black or blue cohash, an herb that causes
life-threatening cramping and bleeding. Other young women took Humphries
11, a drug designed to soften the cervix before labor, believing that it
would cause them to abort. Contrary to the rumors these teenagers had
heard, however, Humphries 11 does not induce abortion -- it causes the
cervix to soften. When the young women saw doctors to obtain medical
abortions, their cervixes had become so soft that they tore severely
during the procedure.3
A school nurse in rural Umatilla County, Oregon, reported a similar
tragedy: A pregnant 16-year-old was fearful of disclosing her pregnancy to
her guardians, her elderly grandparents. Although the nurse encouraged the
young woman to confide in an adult family member, she told only her
14-year-old brother that she was pregnant. After trying to give herself an
abortion with knitting needles, the young woman began bleeding profusely
and almost died before she could reach the nearest hospital. She never
returned to school.4
Not only have young women been severely injured because they were unable to
notify their parents. Some have paid with the highest price of all─ their
lives. One mother found her 15-year-old daughter -- an honor student at a
Catholic high school -- lying dead on their bathroom floor. An autopsy
later revealed that the young woman died after stabbing herself in the
vagina with a plastic tube while trying to self-abort. Seven years
earlier, the mother had had an abortion, and since then had stressed
repeatedly that abortion was murder. In desperation, her daughter turned
to self-abortion rather than tell her mother about her pregnancy.5
A counselor at a women's medical center in Mississippi has testified that:
[M]inors will go to tremendous lengths to keep their parents from finding
out they are pregnant -- even placing their need for secrecy before their
own safety. On one occasion, for example, I received a call from a
panicked young woman who was pregnant and bleeding profusely. She had not
had an abortion. I told her that she had to get to a hospital immediately.
She said this was impossible because she could not get to the hospital
without her parents finding out. I offered to come and get her and take
her myself. However, she refused to tell me where she was because
strangers coming to the house would make her parents suspicious. I pleaded
with her to let me take her to the hospital, but she was adamant about
maintaining secrecy at all costs. The next day a friend of hers called to
tell us that the young woman had bled to death in her room.6
Violent Parental Reaction
Instead of offering support to their pregnant daughters, some parents lash
out violently. Particularly where there is a history of physical or sexual
abuse in the family, this violence can jeopardize the life and health of a
young woman or destroy her future.
One young woman explains that she simply could not tell her father of her
[I]t occurred to me what my . . . alcoholic father would do to me if he
found out I was pregnant. He would have beaten me to within an inch of my
life. He'd beaten me silly for lesser things when I was younger; playing
with Mom's make up; typical kid stuff that other kids got yelled at for or
sent to their rooms for, my sister and I were beaten with belts, sticks, 2
X 4's (no exaggeration), and were even punched or dragged around . . . . I
thought about what would happen to me if I had the baby. My dad would have
beaten me and kicked me out.7
Experts estimate that nearly one woman in every two will be battered by a
spouse or partner during her lifetime; in half of these families, children
will also be battered, and in one-third of these families, children may be
sexually abused. Long-term studies of abusive families show that the
number of violent incidents increases when a wife or teenage daughter
becomes pregnant.8 Understandably, then, many young women realistically
fear that their fathers or step-fathers will abuse them if told about an
unwanted pregnancy or an abortion.
Kathy's mother had separated from her husband because of his abusive
behavior. During a court hearing, she testified that:
[t]wice during the last six years of our marriage when he was in a drunken
stupor he put a .45 Magnum to my head and was going to blow my head off . .
She felt she could not tell him about Kathy's abortion decision because:
he would go totally insane . . . Kathy was terrified of him, horribly
terrified of him . . . . We would not have notified him, there would have
been no way. No way.9
Where a pattern of sexual abuse already exists, parental reactions to a
daughter's pregnancy can be even more extreme. One notable example
occurred in Fruitland, Idaho, where 13-year-old Spring Adams became
pregnant as a result of sexual abuse by her father. Although the young
woman decided to have an abortion and arranged for an appointment, she
could not afford either to pay for the procedure or to travel to the
abortion provider, who was more than six hours away in Portland, Oregon.
The local social services agency would have refused to pay for her medical
care because abortions are not covered by medical assistance ─ even in rape
or incest cases. Two Portland organizations arranged for a free abortion,
a ride to Portland, and a place for Spring to stay overnight. But the
morning before she was to leave for the clinic, Spring's father shot her to
death with a .30 caliber rifle while she lay sleeping.10
For a variety of compelling reasons, rape and incest survivors often are
unable to discuss the abuse with anyone. Telling their abusers about a
pregnancy is unthinkable. As one young woman explained:
Imagine being seventeen, pregnant after being raped by your father, alone,
isolated, afraid to tell anyone for fear your parents would find out and
that, if they did, you would be further humiliated, harassed and abused by
your father, or that your mother would herself be in danger of abuse should
she take your side . . . . If I had been forced to obtain parental consent,
I would, most certainly, have killed myself. And at seventeen, pregnant
and having just survived being raped by my father, the idea of going into
court and telling a judge about my situation would have been inconceivable;
it took me 7 years to tell anyone the story, much less a judge.11
Broken Families, Shattered Dreams
The story of Angela, an incest survivor since she was seven years old,
shows how forced communication can be the final straw in an already
strained family relationship. Angela was terrified of her father, but
believing that the Minnesota two-parent notification law left her no way
out, Angela told him of her pregnancy. Confirming her worst fears,
Angela's father sent her younger sisters -- ages 15, 9, and 7 -- away from
I was told that because of my abortion, that my sisters could not live with
me because I was a bad influence on them, which caused me a lot of guilty
feelings, a lot of pain because I do love my sisters. And for the previous
year, I had been the mother figure in their life. . . . [i]t really tore me
A clinic counselor remembers a call from the parents of a young women who
had obtained an abortion at her
They informed me that they considered getting an abortion to be a mentally
disturbed act and that, as a result, they were having their daughter
Because most teenagers have no means of providing for their own food and
shelter, the fear of being kicked out of their homes is especially acute.
Rose sought a judicial bypass for just this reason:
[If I told my father] he would be angry and upset with me. I don't think
he would ─ he wouldn't be open-minded about it at all. He'd look at it in
one way, the way he thinks is right. And he wouldn't look at it as my
decision. He would condemn me for it . . . . At first he would be very
upset, probably yell and scream a bit. Then I would just probably be
kicked out of the house if I didn't leave on my own will.14
A Minnesota clinic administrator remembers one young woman who could not
tell either parent. Her mother was abusive, had undergone psychiatric
treatment, and had been hospitalized several times. The young woman lived
with her father, but was adamant about not telling him because he had
become enraged when he had caught her older sister in a compromising
situation with her boyfriend:
[She said her father] took her sister to a bar on Hennepin Avenue in
downtown Minneapolis and forced her to sit and watch the prostitutes, the
way they were picked up by men. She said that he told her sister that if
she were going to act like a whore she should see the way they live.15
Daughters often refuse to discuss their pregnancies with parents who are
substance abusers or who are physically ill or emotionally unstable,
feeling the need to shelter their parents from further trauma.
For example, Mary J., whose father had died several years earlier,
described her relationship with her alcoholic mother "like that of a
babysitter." She was afraid that news of her pregnancy might cause her
mother to start drinking again and "crumble the bridge" of communication
they were trying to build.16
Sharon L.'s mother had been hospitalized several times for schizophrenia, "
. . . she hallucinates a lot, she hears voices and she is very sure people
are out to get her." Sharon feared that telling her mother about her
unwanted pregnancy "could have just broken her down emotionally . . . she
could have completely slipped out."17
Even in families where there are close ties, young women may decide not to
tell their parents about a pregnancy. These young women want to live up to
their parents' expectations and preserve good family relationships. As one
I was only seventeen when I became pregnant . . . . I was a senior in high
school. I was cast in the school play, making straight A's, earning my
scholarship to college, and had just been promoted to a more responsible
position in my part time job. I was any parent's dream of an intelligent,
mature, well adjusted daughter. At this time my parents were going through
drastic financial trouble, but their greatest source of encouragement and
strength was that they had raised four talented and responsible children.
I love my parents very much and know that they deserve all the praise and
admiration they get for the family they raised. This is why I could never
let them know I was pregnant. I thank God that parental permission was not
necessary for me to have an abortion.18
How To Change The Cycle Of Tragedy And Fear
With more than one million young American women becoming pregnant each
year19 -- most of whose pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted20 -- teenage
pregnancy is a societal problem that is not likely to disappear soon.
Nevertheless, we can reduce unwanted pregnancies by making a full range of
reproductive health care options more accessible to young women. Repeal or
modification of all parental notification and consent laws is a crucial
first step. It is also critical to broaden access to reproductive health
services -- including contraception, abortion, and prenatal, labor and
post-partum care -- as well as pregnancy prevention programs, and sex and
health education in our communities and schools. Evidence strongly
demonstrates that young women will seek family planning and health services
when they are made available to them -- in a confidential manner, near their
homes or schools, and at a reasonable cost.
You can help improve the lives and health of young women. If you live in
one of the 15 states that are currently enforcing parental involvement
laws, write or call your state legislators and urge them to repeal or
modify the restrictions. If restrictions have not yet been imposed, thank
your state Representatives and Senators for their restraint and remain
active in your local ACLU to ensure that new measures are not enacted.
Together, we can make a difference.
1 CBS 60 Minutes, February 24, 1991.
2 Torres, Forrest & Eisman, "Telling Parents: Clinic Policies and
Adolescents' Use of Family Planning and Abortion Services," 12 Fam. Plan.
Persp. 284, 291 (1980).
3 Interviews with clinic doctors and counselors conducted by Robin
Abrams and Talcott Camp, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, Metairie and
New Orleans, Louisiana, August, 1990.
4 No on 8 and 10 Campaign, "Speaker's Packet, September 4, 1990 at 2.
5 Binkin, Gold, and Cates, Jr., "Illegal-Abortion Deaths in the United
States: Why Are They Still Occurring?," 14 Fam. Plan. Persp. 163, 165
6 Declaration of Martha Fuqua, Barnes v. Mississippi, No. J86-0458 (W)
(S.D. Miss. June 30, 1986) at 4-5.
7 Hodgson v. Minnesota, Nos. 86-5423, 5431-MN (8th Cir. March 13, 1987)
Brief of National Abortion Rights Action League, et. al, as amici curiae at
8 Testimony of Lenore Walker, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, No. 88-3228
(E.D. Pa. July 31, 1990) at 20, 21, 23, 41
9 Testimony of Sarah L., Hodgson v. Minnesota, No. 3-81-Civ. 538 (D.
Minn. February 26, 1986) at 1258, 1261-62, 1267.
10 Miller, "Rocky Adams Stuns Court With New Plea," Idaho Statesman,
August 23, 1989 ; Ensunsa, "Agencies Set Up Adams' Abortion," Idaho
Statesman, August 30, 1989 ; Ensunsa, "Adams Charged With Murder," Idaho
Statesman, August 23, 1989.
11 Letter from Sharon, The Voices of Women: Abortion In Their Own Words,
National Abortion Rights Action League at 18.
12 Deposition of Angela E., Hodgson v. Minnesota, No. 3-81-Civ. 538 (D.
Minn. December 27, 1983) at 8-11, 13.
13 Declaration of Martha Fuqua, Barnes v. Mississippi, No. J 86-0458 (W)
(S.D. Miss. June 30, 1986) at 4-5.
14 Deposition of Rose E., Hodgson v. Minnesota, No. 3-81-Civ. 548 (D.
Minn. January 10, 1984) at 13.
15 Testimony of Paula Wendt, Hodgson v. Minnesota, No. 3-81-Civ. 538 (D.
Minn. February 10, 1986) at 41.
16 Testimony of Mary J., Hodgson v. Minnesota, No. 3-81-Civ.-538 (D.
Minn. February 18, 1986) at 634-6.
17 Testimony of Sharon L., Hodgson v. Minnesota, No. 3-81-Civ.-538 (D.
Minn. February 19, 1986) at 716-17.
18 Hodgson v. Minnesota, Nos. 86-5423, 5431-MN, (8th Cir. March 13, 1987)
Brief of National Abortion Rights Action League, et. al, as amici curiae at
19 Alan Guttmacher Institute, Teenage Pregnancy in the United States:
The Scope of the Problem and State Responses, New York, 1989 at 12.
20 Jones et al., Teenage Pregnancy in Industrialized Countries, Yale
University Press: New Haven, 1986 at 40.
The Reproductive Freedom Project would like to thank all the young women
featured in the photographs for their help in making this book.
Copyright 1991 by the Reproductive Freedom Project of the American Civil
Liberties Union Foundation.
Contact us for more information about parental involvement laws and for
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ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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