Why We Need to Repeal the Parental Notification of Abortion Law in 2021

parental notification abortion law image of young women-identified folks

For Illinois residents under the age of 18, abortion access is a continuous struggle due to the Parental Notice of Abortion (PNA) law, an Illinois mandate that requires a health care provider to notify an adult family member if anyone 17-years-old and younger wants to have an abortion for any reason.

For many young people, this is not a feasible option. They may not live with their parents or have a strained relationship; they may face verbal or physical abuse or be forced to carry their pregnancy to term.

The Judicial Bypass Process Is Burdensome & Delaying Access

When PNA went into effect in 2013, it had to have a judicial bypass option to be considered constitutional, similar to a waiver. Managed by the ACLU of Illinois, the judicial bypass process provides resources to young people who need information about PNA or legal representation. If the young person wants to go through with their abortion without parental or guardian involvement, they can elect to go through a court hearing with an ACLU-provided lawyer and explain to a judge why they would prefer not to alert those required under PNA and understand their decision.

“Each of my clients have thought clearly about their decision and analyzed their choices. All PNA does is make it harder for young people to act on their well-informed decisions; it was not designed to help anyone.”

According to the Human Rights Watch report about PNA that was published on March 11, roughly 1,000 residents under 18 have abortions in Illinois each year. Per the report, 40 percent of young people who seek out the judicial bypass program cite fear of being forced to continue their pregnancy, while 40 percent fear being kicked out of the house or cut off financially.

The report reads: “Even when young people are able to navigate the judicial bypass process, it is burdensome and delays their access to abortion care. Appearing before a judge to request permission to see through an abortion decision is highly stressful for young people, and even traumatizing for some. Participating in the process also risks violating their privacy and confidentiality.”

A young person would either be told about the judicial bypass option from a healthcare provider or from searching information online. If you search “how to get an abortion under 18 in Illinois,” on Google, the Illinois judicial bypass project appears as one of the results. The young person would then find information on how to call, email, or text someone at the project to be connected to a judicial bypass volunteer lawyer.

Their next step after connecting with the judicial bypass program would be meeting with an ACLU provided lawyer, such as Melissa Widen, and talk about options such as why the young person is seeking an abortion and why seeking permission of a parent, grandparent, stepparent living in the home, or legal guardian is not a safe option for them.

Widen said that there are many challenges young people face to participate in the judicial bypass program with or without COVID and that PNA threatens the safety and well-being of young people who seek abortions.

“PNA is an unnecessary burden that causes harm when young people can clearly make this decision on their own,” she said. “Each of my clients have thought clearly about their decision and analyzed their choices. All PNA does is make it harder for young people to act on their well-informed decisions; it was not designed to help anyone.”

According to Widen, 99.5 percent of young people are permitted to seek abortion care through the judicial bypass program, but the PNA process remains intimidating and harmful for young people. Young people are trusted again and again by judges to make this personal decision, therefore, proving the obsoleteness of the law.

From January 2017 to June 2020, the ACLU of Illinois reported that 82 percent of young people who went through the judicial bypass process who shared their information identified as Black, Latinx, Asian, or multiracial – further proving the racial disparity that systemically prevents access to care.

Young People Are Making Informed Decisions For Themselves

Emily Werth, staff attorney for the ACLU of Illinois, supervises the judicial bypass program and helps lawyers and clients navigate PNA. She said research shows that almost every young person involves someone in their decision about abortion, but it just may not be a person who qualifies for notification under the PNA law, which may be a parent, grandparent, stepparent living in the home, or legal guardian.

“The majority of young people are going to voluntarily talk to a parent or a trusted adult if they are facing an unplanned pregnancy and trying to decide what to do,” Werth said.

Those who choose not to talk to parents are doing so for their safety and because it is the best option for their current situation.

While working with her clients, Widen has noticed that they have a mature understanding of the weight of their decisions even while being forced to share vulnerable moments of their lives with strangers.

She shared that at a recent hearing her 16-year-old client said: “My parents are still taking care of me; how can I take care of someone else?. I am making this choice for my own safety.”

Some clients have had parents or guardians find out that they are pursuing judicial bypass and cut them off from their resources. They take away their phones, computers, or car keys to prevent them from accessing care, therefore forcing them to miss the 24-week deadline in the state of Illinois to have an abortion.

Regardless of the trauma, these young people may face, Werth said she has always been impressed by their resilience.

“Every week more young people are being forced to go through this process,” she said. “We are exposing them to risks and forcing them to jump through these very challenging hoops that ultimately do not serve any purpose besides just being hoops they must jump through. At the end of the day, we are harming the young people who cannot involve their parents while those young people who can, would be doing so anyway.”

Let Them Speak for Themselves

“Had I had that child, even though my partner and I love each other, we would not be in that relationship. I don’t know if I would be alive if I tried to have a child at that point.”

The Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health has worked to highlight the voices of those affected by PNA on their SoundCloud channel. They collected interviews from five anonymous people who have faced abortion access issues: Aaryanna, Kush, Angie, Cee and Vee.

Aaryanna knew she couldn’t have a child yet, so she had an abortion at 17. Her mother had her when she was young and she always questioned what her life would have looked like if she had not.

“Had I had that child, even though my partner and I love each other, we would not be in that relationship. I don’t know if I would be alive if I tried to have a child at that point,” she said.

She later discovered she was an alcoholic at the time and having a child during that period of her life as well would have derailed her.

“I am now closer to meeting my goals because I don’t have a child, “ Aaryanna said.

COVID Is Complicating Abortion Access for Illinois Teens

Before COVID, lawyers like Widen would figure out a time to meet with the client in-person at the Daley Center or a local courthouse. If the Daley Center was the closer option and the young person could afford transportation, they would go there, but they can go to their county courthouse if they would like to do so. Although, many young people have had to be careful in case someone they know works at the courthouse or they live in a small town. In this case, young people either opt toward a courthouse in a different county or decide to make the trip to the Daley Center.

With COVID-19, judicial bypass hearings are conducted via Zoom, creating another obstacle. Instead of worrying about getting out of school and having transportation, young people must now be concerned over steady internet access and private spaces they can Zoom from where others will not overhear.

Widen shared that on two occasions during a recent hearing her client had to stop the hearing to go and talk to her mother and another client had to hide in her bathroom while on Zoom with her cellphone to ensure privacy.

Whether hearings are on Zoom or in person, young people must prepare to share the most intimate details of their life such as sexual and family history with a judge who decides if they are mature and well-informed enough to decide to have an abortion or if notifying an adult family member under the law is not in their best interests.

2021 Efforts to Repeal PNA

On January 20, the North and Northwest Suburban Illinois chapter of NOW kickstarted 2021 with an event to repeal PNA. Widen and Werth are both confident that 2021 is the year that PNA will be repealed.

In 2019, a bill to repeal PNA did not pass, but a new bill has been introduced this year before the Illinois General Assembly by State Senator Elgie Sims and State Reprepresentative Anna Moeller. The bill would need 30 votes in the Senate and 60 in the house to repeal PNA.

If PNA is repealed, autonomy would be returned to young people in Illinois to choose who to inform of their health care decision and would still receive counseling to understand the procedure and their rights. They would be treated the same as someone who wants to continue the pregnancy, as abortion is the only pregnancy-related health care that requires young people to involve their parents under Illinois law.

To learn more about PNA, check out resources from www.repealpna.org.

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash
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Sam Stroozas is journalism graduate student at Northwestern University and writes about gender and sexual health issues. Follow her on Twitter @samstroozas.