Most women considering whether or not to have an abortion are required to consult only their consciences. For minors, the question can be far more complicated. Last month the Supreme Court ruled that states could require unwed teenage girls to notify parents before having an abortion. In one instance the Court upheld a Minnesota statute requiring that both parents be told, but giving the teenager the alternative of obtaining permission from a judge. In another case, the justices upheld an Ohio law stipulating that at least one parent be notified; it also allowed a bypass in court.
In 1987, the most recent year for which there are statistics, there were roughly 1,015,000 teenage pregnancies in the U.S., of which 407,000 ended in abortion. With parental notification or consent laws now on the books in 33 states, the issue is of obvious urgency. Antiabortion activists hailed the Supreme Court’s rulings as a victory for common sense. They argue that no parents should be denied the chance to intervene when a daughter contemplates such a serious step as abortion. Pro-choicers, on the other hand, make the case that forcing a girl to seek approval from her parents is an intolerable breach of privacy that inevitably forces many pregnant teenagers into the dangerous world of illegal abortion. On the following pages are the stories of three young women who found different solutions to the abortion dilemma.
Before the Abortion, an Ordeal in Court
At 14, Heather Pearson impressed nearly everyone who knew her as a sensible girl, mature for her years. Though her mother, a single parent, gave her plenty of freedom and imposed no curfew, Heather never got into drugs or serious trouble. But even the most responsible teenager can stumble on the way to adulthood, and in the spring of 1985 Heather began sleeping with her 15-year-old boyfriend.
The decision hardly made Heather unique at Plymouth Junior High School, near her home in a suburb of Minneapolis. “At least 40 percent of the kids our age in school were having sex,” she says. Though she used birth control only occasionally, she was not worried about pregnancy; when she became nauseous one morning in July, she thought she had the flu. But after it persisted for two weeks, her mother took her to a doctor. There, Heather spotted a sign warning expectant mothers about the hazards of X rays and realized what might really be wrong. “I saw the sign and thought, ‘Oh, my God, maybe I’m pregnant!’ ” she says. A nurse, promising confidentiality, gave her a pregnancy test; a few minutes later the doctor came in with the result, written on a card that he held to one side so that Heather’s mother wouldn’t see it. “It said P-O-S,” recalls Heather. “I could have died.”
By the next day, she had decided to have an abortion. “I wanted to finish school,” she says, “and I knew I couldn’t put the baby up for adoption.” She told her mother the news over the phone because, she says, “I didn’t want to sec her face.” Her mother, an executive secretary, came home from work and began making plans to terminate the pregnancy. “Being she was so young, I had no doubts,” says Heather’s mother (who does not want her name used). But when they tried to schedule an abortion at the nearby Meadowbrook Women’s Clinic, they learned that a 1981 Minnesota law required that both parents be notified of a minor’s abortion; the only alternative was to get permission from a judge.
Neither mother nor daughter considered notifying Heather’s father, who had been absent since the couple’s divorce 10 years before. “Are you kidding? I hardly knew him. And he has a terrible temper.” says Heather of the man who calls her twice a year and whom she has never told of the pregnancy. And so on Aug. 16, Heather and her mother went to county court in downtown Minneapolis. “You could tell that everyone knew what you were there for,” Heather recalls. “They’d stare, then walk off, whispering.” After enduring a battery of questions by a court-appointed guardian and a public defender—Why did she want an abortion? Had she been pressured? Why hadn’t she told her father?—Heather arrived before the judge. Her request, like all but nine of the 3,573 petitions that came before the court from 1981 to 1986, was summarily approved. That afternoon she went back to Meadowbrook and had the abortion. “I was so scared,” she says. “By the next day, I felt better.”
Heather managed to put the whole ordeal out of her mind until that fall, when Paula Wendt, director of the Meadow-brook Clinic, asked her to become a plaintiff in a suit that the American Civil Liberties Union had filed in federal court, arguing that Minnesota’s abortion law invaded the privacy and jeopardized the health of pregnant minors. “We were looking for young women who had their custodial parent’s permission but still had to go before a judge,” says Wendt. “Heather has always been very mature, very thoughtful. She could have made the decision on her own.” Three years after joining the action anonymously, Heather began to speak publicly about the case, which was wending its way to the Supreme Court in the wake of conflicting lower-court opinions. “I want people to see that [girls who have abortions] are good people,” she says. “I made a mistake, but I took responsibility for it.”
Heather is bitterly disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Minnesota law, which had not been in effect since Heather and 16 other plaintiffs won a temporary stay in federal court four years ago. She fears that last month’s ruling will encourage legislators to pass parental-consent laws in other states. “I have very strong feelings about what happened to me,” says Heather, who has a sister two years younger than she. “I don’t want other girls to have to go through it.”
Now employed as the youngest-ever store manager of Company’s Coming, a St. Paul party-supplies retailer. Heather lives in a suburban split-level home with her fiancé, Tom Kuether, a 29-year-old auto service-center manager. She plans to start taking college classes soon—and to start a family after she graduates. I’m happy with my life,” she says. “I have goals. I have a future. Without that abortion, who knows where I’d be?”
A Secret, Illegal Abortion Leads to a Tragic Death
Becky Bell was one of those pretty, self-confident girls who are the envy of their classmates. As a 17-year-old junior at Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis, she played flute in the school band, wrote poetry and worked at the local Cub Foods store for spending money. She adored animals and was so sweet-tempered that she had given up riding rather than use a crop on a horse. “Becky loved everyone unconditionally,” says her mother, Karen, 46, adding that friends and family were buoyed by her high spirits.
Then one Saturday night in September 1988, Becky came home early from a party, complaining of flulike symptoms. Her parents were not alarmed; Becky’s father, Bill, a 47-year-old regional sales manager for an office-supplies firm, had lately been suffering from the flu himself. But after five days, when Becky’s symptoms persisted and she ran a high fever, the Bells insisted on taking her to a doctor. At a local clinic a physician quickly diagnosed pneumonia and urged her to check into a hospital. The Bells drove to nearby St. Vincent hospital, where doctors administered oxygen to Becky to ease the congestion in her lungs. Relieved that their daughter was getting the proper medical care, the Bells went to Wendy’s for a hamburger. “I love you, Mommy and Daddy,” ‘ said Becky as they left.
When the Bells returned, some problem had arisen. For the next three hours they watched in growing panic as doctors and nurses scrambled in and out of Becky’s room. Finally a doctor delivered the horrifying news: Their daughter had died, but not from pneumonia—she had been pregnant and the victim of a botched abortion that had caused blood poisoning. “Something dirty was stuck into her,” Bill recalls the doctor saying. “Probably a coat hanger or a knitting needle.”
In the weeks that followed, the Bells learned from Becky’s friends about the circumstances that led to her death. She had gotten pregnant three or four months before. The father was a young man she had met through her brother, Billy, and had been seeing for a short while; it seems he offered no assistance. Becky considered telling her parents but couldn’t bear the consequences. “I don’t want to hurt Mom and Dad. I love them so much,” she wrote in a note the Bells later found. Instead, Becky had gone to the Planned Parenthood office in Indianapolis, where she asked about an abortion and was told that under Indiana law, women under 18 need a parent’s consent. Her only options were to appeal to a juvenile court judge for a waiver or to travel to Kentucky, the closest state where no parental consent was required.
Apparently neither of those choices seemed viable to a confused, frightened teenager. And so on the Saturday night that she was supposed to have been attending a party, Becky had gone somewhere for an illegal abortion. To this day neither her parents nor legal authorities know who performed the crude operation.
Becky’s death has forced the Bells, who knew nothing of Indiana’s parental consent law, to rethink some of their most deeply held assumptions. They have come to understand why, despite the family’s closeness, Becky couldn’t simply tell them the truth. “Hell, I’m 47 and I’m still trying to please my mother,” says Bill. “This was a 17-year-old kid.” Though they consider themselves conservative and twice voted for Ronald Reagan, they have testified against parental consent laws in Indiana and seven other states.
Each evening after supper, Bill and Karen walk hand in hand to Bethel Cemetery, where their daughter lies. “We have to keep coming here because we’re not finished being Mom and Dad yet,” says Karen, sitting beside the white gravestone. “Why did she have to die?” For Bill, the answer is clear. “If I had heard of those laws before, I probably would have thought they were a good idea,” he says. “But now I know what they do. These goddamned laws are killing kids.”
A Child Brings a Young Mother Mixed Blessings
When she learned that she was pregnant, late in the summer of 1985, Katy Welch wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. As a Catholic, she was opposed to abortion. But as a 16-year-old high school junior, she also realized she lacked the maturity to care for a baby. Nor could she count on the father, a boy she had been seeing only off and on. And she simply wasn’t prepared to surrender her sense of youthful freedom so soon.
In desperation Katy went to a clinic in her hometown of Brooklyn Park, Minn., to inquire about an abortion. There she was told that unless she notified her parents, she would need a judge’s approval. Knowing that her mother and father would never agree, she went straight to county court and a few hours later returned to the clinic with the signed forms in hand. Then, as she sat in the waiting room, her resolution crumbled. Even now Katy can’t say whether the process of obtaining court permission led her to reconsider. But she suddenly became convinced that her mother and father would someday learn the truth. “I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t have an abortion,” she says. “I wasn’t so afraid of the procedure but of my parents’ reaction when they did find out. They would have disowned me.”
With that decision, Katy embarked on a course fraught with different anxieties. First, of course, she had to let her parents know she was pregnant. “I knew I’d have to tell them sometime, but I kept putting it off,” she says. Finally, a few days before Christmas and four months into Katy’s pregnancy, one of her friends stepped in and told Katy’s mother, Mary, a part-time real estate agent. “We both cried, my mother and me,” recalls Katy. The next day her father, Mike, 42, also a real estate agent, picked her up at school, and the two had a long talk. To Katy’s relief, her parents refrained from recriminations and pledged their support. “There were the usual embarrassments about having your 16-year-old daughter pregnant,” says Katy, who has two younger sisters. “But otherwise they were wonderful.”
When Katy finally gave birth to her daughter, Emily, in May 1986, her mother and father were pleased when she decided not to put the child up for adoption. “The family is supposed to deal with a mistake, not turn it over to society to take care of,” says Mary, 41. “People have to be accountable.” Katy continued to live at home with Emily and went back to school, leaving her daughter each day at a child-care center. Though she was never ostracized by her classmates, Katy did sense a coolness. “I was kind of set aside,” she says. “It bothered me, but I tried not to let it.”
After one earlier stint of living on her own, Katy last month moved out of her parents’ home again and into a one-bedroom apartment nearby, though she still counts on her mother for baby-sitting when she is attending classes at a local two-year business school. The apartment is small but neat, with preframed posters on the wall, doilies on the end tables and toys piled high in the closet.
All in all, Emily seems a healthy, happy, if demanding, child. Now 4, she is adjusting to playing with groups of children, though she still likes to be the focus of her mother’s attention. Katy would like her daughter to have a strong father figure. But Katy says that the man she is dating now, a limousine driver, doesn’t appear to be as serious about their relationship as she is.
Even so, Katy believes things have worked out fairly well. She can never be as carefree as her friends, but she also takes pride in the experience of motherhood. And there is the quiet joy that she so clearly takes in her little girl. “She’s a mistake,” says Katy, “but a mistake I’ve grown to love.”
—Bill Hewitt and Patricia Freeman, Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis and Bill Shaw in Indianapolis