For the Children
Strengthening parental-involvement laws.


Parental-involvement laws have been enacted in a number of states in recent years. As one of the first pieces of pro-life legislation to both withstand constitutional scrutiny and enjoy widespread popular approval, they have long since been a legislative priority for pro-lifers. During the 1990s, Republican gains in many state legislatures facilitated the passage of these laws and currently 37 states have some form of parental-involvement legislation on the books. Furthermore, a growing body of social-science evidence is showing that these laws are effective. Better yet, the Senate is about to consider legislation that would strengthen these laws by making it more difficult for minors to obtain abortions outside their own state.

Indeed, because of their popularity, parental-involvement laws have always posed problems for supporters of abortion rights. Unable to defeat parental-involvement laws either in legislatures or in the court of public opinion, their current strategy appears to be to marginalize them by questioning their effectiveness. In their recent report on abortion, the Alan Guttmacher Institute marginalizes legislation and gives contraception much of the credit for the 1990s abortion decline. The New York Times was even more blunt. After a brief analysis of abortion trends in six states that recently passed parental-involvement laws, the Times claimed in a March 6,2006, article that parental-involvement laws have done little to reduce the incidence of abortion among teens.

However, the Times analysis was in many respects cursory and superficial. For starters, the Times reporters only consider data for two years per state — the year before the parental-involvement law was passed and the most recent year data was available. Two data points is generally insufficient if one wants to cite findings with any degree of statistical confidence. Furthermore, the Times reporters do not weight the data, allowing small fluctuations in small states like Idaho and South Dakota to have a disproportionate impact on their overall findings. Finally, their most glaring error was their consideration of data from Arizona, a state that changed its abortion reporting requirements after its parental-involvement law was passed in 2003.

Furthermore, my recently released Heritage Foundation study (July 18, 2006) which provides a more comprehensive analysis of abortion trends in these 6 states provides solid evidence that these parental-involvement laws were effective. This study overcomes many of the shortcomings in the original Times analysis. First, considerably more state data is analyzed. Additionally, high population states are given more weight than low population states. Finally, data from Arizona is excluded due to changes in the state reporting mechanism.

In the five remaining states, the evidence clearly shows that parental-involvement laws are effective. The incidence of abortion among minors fell relative to the incidence of abortion among non-minors, indicating that parental-involvement laws had an impact. Also, on average, minor abortions fell faster in states that passed parental-involvement laws than in states that did not. Furthermore, reductions were evident in both the teen abortion rate (abortions per capita) and the teen abortion ratio (abortions per births).

This analysis adds to the body of social-science evidence that suggests that parental-involvement laws are effective at reducing the incidence of abortion. Indeed, comprehensive studies which have appeared in journals as diverse as Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, The Journal of Human Resources, and Contemporary Economic Policy have found evidence that parental-involvement laws are correlated with reductions in teen abortion rates. Finally, a recent study of Texas’ recently passed parental-involvement law which appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine found that it had led to reductions in teen abortions in Texas.

Now, in fairness there exists no scholarly consensus as to the extent to which parental-involvement laws result in overall reductions in the incidence of abortion. This is because it is possible for teens to cross state lines and have abortions in states where the laws are more permissive. Scholars have arrived at different conclusions about the extent to which declines within state boundaries have been off set by out of state increases.

However, pending legislation in the U.S. Senate may make all existing parental-involvement laws considerably more effective. This week the Senate is scheduled to vote on the Child Custody Prevention Act which would make it a crime for a minor to be transported across state lines for the purpose of obtaining an abortion by anyone who is not the child’s legal guardian. Such legislation would doubtless make it more difficult for minors to seek abortions outside their own state. It would also give greater protections to young minors who would typically encounter more difficulty crossing state lines on their own. This bill would go a long way in solidifying the pro-life gains that were made in the states during the 1990s.

Overall, during the last 15 years, the pro-life movement has won some of its most impressive victories at the state level. However, in almost every case, these state-level victories have been made possible by political action at the federal level. Federal legislation banning partial-birth abortions alerted many to this gruesome procedure and shifted public opinion in a more pro-life direction. Similarly, court appointments by pro-life presidents have given many state-level laws constitutional protection. The upcoming vote the Child Custody Prevention Act, will give the Senate yet another opportunity to help states protect the unborn and build a culture of life.

— Michael J. New, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a visiting health-policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation.