The one abortion law Democrats aren’t rushing to repeal

Democrats’ reticence is frustrating some abortion rights advocates who want lawmakers to do whatever they can to expand access as red and purple states — including Florida, Nebraska, North Carolina and South Carolina — debate or pass new restrictions on the procedure. The clash also comes as access to mifepristone, one of the two drugs used together to terminate a pregnancy, remains in jeopardy as the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals hears arguments on the pills on Wednesday.

“Broadly, every person in our caucus is pro-reproductive freedom. It’s always when you get into the details that things become negotiable,” said Minnesota state Sen. Erin Maye Quade, a Democrat, who introduced a wide-ranging reproductive health care bill that included repealing the state’s parental notification law.

Nearly three-quarters of states — including liberal enclaves like Colorado, Maryland and Massachusetts, where Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion — have laws that either require parents to give permission or be notified before their child terminates a pregnancy.

Minors make up roughly 8 percent of those receiving abortions in the U.S., according to the CDC — the vast majority of them between the ages of 15 and 19.

Anti-abortion groups, eager to make a case that Democrats are the extremists when it comes to abortion, are seizing on the issue — aiming ads and other messaging at parents upset by the idea that their children are having abortions without their knowledge.

“They’re pushing to limit a parent’s ability to have a say in their daughters’ lives,” said Kelsey Pritchard, director of state public affairs for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “Whether an American is pro-life or pro-choice, this goes so far beyond that and so far beyond Roe v. Wade. It’s something people of all political stripes are uncomfortable with.”

State advocates point to local polling — for instance, in Minnesota — showing the public approves of repealing parental notification laws. But national polling shows overwhelming support for keeping the laws in place: A Pew Research poll conducted last year found 70 percent support for requiring parental notification for minors, including 57 percent of self-described Democrats. And over 50 percent of the public support requiring parental consent.

“It’s a trickier issue,” said Ruth Lytle-Barnaby, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Delaware. “Everybody, logically, would like to know what their teen is up to … Working through that not all parents have the same response and that sometimes violence in the home can occur — those are long conversations.”

Abortion rights groups in Colorado, Delaware and New Hampshire said they didn’t even try to repeal their parental involvement laws this year — instead spending their time on other reproductive health efforts. And while bills to repeal or amend parental involvement laws were or will be introduced this year in Minnesota, Oregon and Michigan, their fate is uncertain.

While other provisions of Maye Quade’s bill were tacked onto an omnibus health bill that is advancing through the legislature, the parental notification repeal was left out. Maggie Meyer, executive director of Pro-Choice Minnesota, said that some Democratic lawmakers who support abortion rights and with whom she has good relationships wouldn’t take her calls on the issue.

“We have been somewhat shut down in attempting to have these conversations,” Meyer said.

Anti-abortion groups are pouncing on this divide.

In multiple states, they’re working to highlight public discomfort with the idea of minors obtaining abortions without their parents’ knowledge, and argue removing parental consent laws would protect sex traffickers and abusive boyfriends. Conservatives see it as a winning message that cuts across the political spectrum and could help them stymie broader efforts on the left to make it easier for people of all ages to terminate a pregnancy.

In Ohio, they recently poured $5 million into ads arguing that the upcoming ballot measure to codify the right to abortion in the state constitution would strip away parental rights. In one of the TV spots, as ominous music plays over footage of a slamming door, a narrator warns parents: “You may be cut out of the biggest decision of her life.”

“We don’t share our campaign strategy but we’ve conducted polling and we know for a fact that this is something parents are concerned about,” said Amy Natoce, the press secretary for Protect Women Ohio. “This isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue.”

Anti-abortion groups used similar parental rights-focused messaging in their campaign in Michigan last year to stop a ballot measure enshrining abortion rights in the state’s constitution. Voters were not swayed and overwhelmingly approved the amendment. Some lawmakers are pointing to that vote — and several others around the country that the abortion rights side won last year — to argue that Democrats shouldn’t be afraid of the issue.

“The so-called parents rights narrative is being used through the lens of abortion care and LGBTQ rights — it’s impossible to pick the two apart because it basically became the same argument,” said Laurie Pohutsky, speaker pro tempore of the Michigan House. “And what astounds me is that that has been demonstrated to be a losing message virtually across the board, and certainly here in Michigan.”

Democratic strategists said they welcome a debate on which party is more extreme on abortion and voice confidence that the right’s push to outlaw the procedure entirely will outweigh any voter concerns about unwinding parental involvement requirements.

“This conversation about parental consent is not happening in a vacuum for voters,” said Martha McKenna, a strategist who has held top positions at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the feminist organization EMILY’s List. “Idaho is saying you can’t leave the state to get an abortion. The courts are saying you can’t get an abortion pill to manage an early abortion. Florida is saying nothing after six weeks. This is a much, much bigger problem for Republicans in the short and the long term.”

Still, some abortion rights advocates believe their political capital is best spent elsewhere, such as pushing for constitutional amendments to protect the right to abortion, expanding insurance coverage of abortion and shielding patients and providers from prosecution.

“We feel like it is a barrier and it’s an unnecessary barrier,” said Karen Middleton, president of the abortion rights group Cobalt Advocates in Colorado, where advocates are prioritizing passing an abortion-related ballot measure in 2024. “But it is a problem that is probably not affecting as broad an audience.”

Progressives have long pushed for the repeal of parental involvement policies, and Democrats in Illinois and Virginia passed laws in recent years allowing minors to seek abortions without telling their parents.

But many states, including Texas and Idaho, have gone in the opposite direction, imposing more restrictions on minors’ access to reproductive health care including contraception.

In states like Colorado and New Hampshire, advocates said a program that allows minors to petition the court to circumvent the state’s parental notification or consent requirements, known as judicial bypass, is working well and has lessened the need for immediate repeal. In other states, like Maryland, health care providers can exempt a minor from the parental notification process if they determine following the policy would jeopardize the patient’s physical or mental health.

But the policies aren’t working well everywhere. Lytle-Barnaby said that no one has ever used the judicial bypass process in her nearly 11 years at Planned Parenthood of Delaware.

“I think it’s a bit onerous,” Lytle-Barnaby said. “That’s a struggle, and we know that might be keeping some people from seeking services.”

Lawmakers and advocates in favor of repealing parental consent and notification laws said it’s a matter of both public health and bodily autonomy, and argue that the belief that someone should be able to decide for themselves when and whether to have a child shouldn’t come with an arbitrary age-based caveat.

Minnesota lawmaker Maye Quade argued such laws can harm teenagers even when their parents are supportive of their choices.

“It’s really not about notifying your parents. It’s about proving to the clinic that the people you told were in fact your parents. It’s really an issue of paperwork,” she said. “You could be standing with both of your parents at the clinic, but you have to produce your birth certificate or their marriage certificate or their divorce certificate — all of these things to prove that these two people are your parents. And that is the barrier this was meant to create.”