How Consent Laws Affect Abortions

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Participants in an anti-abortion rally on the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade in San Benito, Texas

Do parental notification and consent laws, which require girls under the age of 18 to tell their parents or get their permission in order to have an abortion, actually reduce the teen abortion rate? Previous scientific studies — and one analysis this week by the New York Times — have cast doubt on the impact of such laws. But researchers writing in the latest New England Journal of Medicine report that in Texas at least, such laws have reduced the abortion rate significantly.

What's more, the study is the first to also show an increase in the number of births among teenage mothers, in this case 17 1/2 year-olds. But the study has some disturbing news for supporters of the notification laws: 17-year-olds in the study had a higher rate of second-trimester abortions, which are both riskier and more ethically charged than abortions done in the early weeks of pregnancy.

In their study, researchers at the City University of New York collected specific age data from birth and abortion certificates filed in Texas between 1997 and 2003 — before and after the state's parental notification law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2000. They chose Texas because it is the largest and most populous of the 35 states that enforce consent or notification laws, and its sheer size makes it difficult for minors to cross the border to get abortions in another state.

Overall, researchers found, teen abortion rates dropped in the wake of the new law. Abortion rates have been falling generally across the nation. But when compared to the rate among 18-year-olds, abortion rates fell 11% in girls aged 15 at the time of conception; 20% in 16-year-olds; and 16% in 17-year-olds. Contrary to what might be expected, birth rates for 15- and 16-year-old teens also declined — suggesting that these teens are either having less sex or practicing better birth control.

The study took a careful look at girls who were 17 1/2 years old, because past studies have indicated that older teens are less likely to communicate with parents about abortion than younger teens and are therefore "more likely to be affected by parental involvement laws," according to the authors. Abortion rates in this group fell 16% compared to 18-year-olds, and the rate of births also increased, by 4%. But the rate of second-trimester abortions rose 34% among this group, suggesting that girls who pursued abortions waited until their 18th birthday to sidestep the law — a result that may not cheer anti-abortion activists who might otherwise be heartened by the survey's findings.