From the Journals

AAP: Teen access to abortion care is a right


Confidentiality and access to timely, appropriate medical care are the rights of adolescents seeking to terminate a pregnancy, according to an updated policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Genuine concern for the best interests of minors argues strongly against mandatory parental consent and notification laws,” the statement authors wrote in the updated policy statement, “The Adolescent’s Right to Confidential Care When Considering Abortion,” published online in Pediatrics.

The AAP Committee on Adolescence, which wrote the policy statement, encourages adolescents to voluntarily involve their parents – or other adults they trust – in decisions surrounding an unintended pregnancy, stating that teens who do will “likely benefit from adult experience, wisdom, emotional support, and financial support.” However, the policy statement also stresses that legally emphasizing parental involvement over a teen’s autonomy can result in barriers to care when timely access is most crucial, especially if a teen is reluctant to tell her parents of the situation (Pediatrics. 2017. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-3861).

Dr. Lee Savio Beers

Dr. Lee Savio Beers

“Particularly when they are in stressful circumstances, adolescents benefit from strong, supportive adult influences. But we have to acknowledge and respect that it may not always be their biological parents who play that role,” Lee S. Beers, MD, a past president of the local Washington, D.C., chapter of the AAP, said in an interview. “We can’t assume that the adolescent and the parent are at the same stage of readiness and communication that are needed to really promote adequate access to health care.” Dr. Beers said that while she was not involved in the statement’s reissue, she supported it.

Currently, 37 states require some level of parental involvement in an adolescent’s decision to pursue an abortion. Most of these states will allow a minor to terminate a pregnancy without parental consent in the case of a medical emergency; about half waive the parental involvement requirement when there is evidence of incest, abuse, or neglect. All states with parental involvement laws also have a so-called judicial bypass, allowing a minor to obtain an abortion with a court’s approval; however, because the process can take as long as several weeks, access to medical treatment can be delayed, upping the risk of complications from later-term abortions. Data cited in the statement indicate that following the enactment of parental involvement laws in three states, second-trimester abortion rates increased by as much as 21% (N Engl J Med. 2006;354[10]:1031-8; Fam Plann Perspect. 1995;27[3]:120-2; Women Health. 1995;22[3]:47-58.

Dr. Cora Breuner

Dr. Cora Breuner

The AAP policy statement’s lead author, Cora Breuner, MD, chair of the AAP Committee on Adolescence and professor of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital, casts a dubious eye on judicial bypass laws. In an interview, Dr. Breuner said the likelihood of a teen availing herself of help from the courts was unlikely. “In real-world terms, it’s hard enough when you do involve the parents, beginning with scheduling ultrasounds to scheduling all the necessary [clinical] visits.”

Even when a judicial bypass is obtained, a study of 12,000 such petitions obtained in Minnesota and Massachusetts showed that only 21 of them were denied, and half of those were overturned, meaning the outcome was the same, but the potential risks of delaying care were higher (J Adolesc Health. 1991;12[2]:143-7). The AAP statement suggests physicians learn their state requirements for judicial bypass, if any.

The updated statement also refutes the notion that parental involvement laws improve communication within families and lead to better health outcomes for teens facing an unintended pregnancy. Instead, the statement says that on average, minors who discuss pregnancy termination with their parents do so at the same rate as in states with and without such laws, and that a teen is more likely to involve her parents than not, a likelihood that increases the younger a teen is. When she doesn’t choose to discuss it with parents, fear of some sort of danger such as an escalation in any ongoing family tensions, coercion into a decision, or abuse of some kind is often why (Contraception. 2010 Oct;82[4]:310-3; Fam Plann Perspect. 1992 Jul-Aug;24[4]:148-54, 173).

“In a perfect world of butterflies and unicorns, parents and kids have a perfect relationship, but we know that’s not always true. There can be significant discord in families, and parental notification could result in harm to the adolescent, or risk to the family’s tapestry with significant consequences for the family and the adolescent,” Dr. Breuner said.

Dr. Beers argued that while she believed most parents would rather be the one their teen turns to for advice in such a situation, it’s not possible to legislate trust within families, each of which has its own history and unique family culture and style of communication. “This is the type of conversation that doesn’t begin with the acute event. This is the kind of conversation that should begin [at] a very early age between a parent and a child,” she said.

The physician’s role, according to Dr. Beers, is to ensure parents and their children have “a shared understanding of the facts to [rely on] when they talk about what is important to their family and what their family values are.”

The updated statement, originally issued in 1993, roughly coincides with the release of a new Guttmacher Institute report indicating that abortion rates in the United States are at their lowest since passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. The report credits lower unintended pregnancy rates and better access to contraception, not restrictive abortion legislation, for the drop. The AAP’s updated statement also comes within days of the inauguration of President Donald Trump, whose run-up to election featured rhetoric challenging the status quo of federal abortion laws.

Dr. Breuner said the timing was a coincidence, and that plans to reissue the statement began over 3 years ago as she and her colleagues drew up plans to recommit their membership to protecting the reproductive rights of their patients. “With all of the regulations, restrictions, and decreased access to [abortion] care that are occurring, the academy wanted members to know just how much more difficult it is to obtain an abortion,” she said, noting that access and confidentiality are not the same. “If you can’t get an abortion, what difference does confidentiality make?”

Last year, the Supreme Court reversed a law that would have greatly limited access to abortion in Texas by closing all but nine clinics statewide, burdening them with care for tens of thousands of women annually. Also in 2016, citing a Constitutional violation of a woman’s right to privacy, a federal judge blocked an Indiana law signed by then governor and now vice president Mike Pence, that restricted the reasons a woman could cite to seek an abortion.

Dr. Breuner views this as an erosion of the rights of all women to comprehensive reproductive care, including those of adolescents. “You can’t ‘Google Map’ how to figure this out anymore. The roads are closed and all the ways people say you can get there don’t really lead you there,” she said, noting that the AAP’s statement is in line with several other professional medical societies, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association.

Regardless of timing, the statement should be viewed not through a political – or even partisan – lens, but as a reaffirmation of “core values,” according to Dr. Beers. “We do live in divided times. I think it’s important to circle back to our core values as pediatricians. That’s the agenda – making sure adolescents are healthy, safe, and supported.”

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