This week marks the 46th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision affirming the right to abortion. But the reality is that access to abortion is still pushed out of reach for many people. For years, politicians who oppose legal abortion have looked for creative and insidious ways to prevent access. Not surprisingly, these policies have preyed upon the poor working class and others without a political voice.
Just four years after Roe, U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, targeted low-income women by pushing a federal policy denying health coverage for abortion for people who use Medicaid. Countless bills have been advanced to close clinics or create extra barriers to make it that much harder to provide or seek services.
Countering this, there has been a huge public outcry over these restrictions. Campaigns have been waged to repeal the harmful Hyde Amendment, and in 2016, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that imposed a medically unnecessary requirement, ruling that it provided no actual benefit to health and safety. Yet, the Fifth Circuit is blatantly ignoring the high Court’s precedent by upholding Louisiana’s admitting-privilege law, the same law that was ruled unconstitutional in Texas.
Louisiana now faces the real threat of most, if not all, of its abortion clinics closing. One group of people that will be hit the hardest by losing access: young people.
Right now, 37 states have some form of legal requirement that forces young people to involve a parent or guardian before they can obtain an abortion. These laws exist specifically to target young women who have no voice in the political system and make it tougher for them to get services. Many of these laws have been challenged in the court system, but they remain in effect in most places, including Louisiana.
Part of what makes Louisiana’s parental involvement law so egregious is that the same people who insist a young person notify a parent or guardian in a personal reproductive health decision are those who prevent the young adults from acquiring information about sex and preventing pregnancy.
While many people are uncomfortable talking about the fact that young people are having sex and could get pregnant, refraining from the conversation makes it worse. Louisiana holds one of the highest rates of pregnancy among young people, and yet state lawmakers refuse to require that young people receive comprehensive sexual health education in the classroom. It's education that will help them manage their health, make informed decisions, and create healthy relationships; and provide unbiased information if they do face an unintended pregnancy.
Most young people do seek a trusted adult for support if they are pregnant, but not every young person has that option. Parental involvement laws don’t change that. Having a policy on the books doesn’t build healthy communications or create a safe home. In spite of all the claims, these laws do not actually ensure the health or safety of young people. Quite the opposite. They can put some young people at risk of being rejected or even harmed and can force others to take drastic measures if they have decided to end their pregnancy. Laws that close down clinics and force people to travel further distances will make it even more difficult for young people to make that choice.
Young people are capable of making thoughtful decisions. We must ensure that they have the information, services, and resources they need. By doing so, we create a culture where young people know they have supportive adults in their lives they can turn to. This will produce open communication and demonstrate how we can put the health needs of young people ahead of political agendas or our own discomfort with teen sex.
When we talk about the days before Roe and the women who were hurt or who died because they could not get a safe, legal abortion, we have to admit that many of the people harmed were young women. If we want to prevent a tragic return to those days, then we can’t leave young women behind.
Michelle Erenberg is executive director of Lift Louisiana, which advocates for women's reproductive health services.