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In parental notification’s first year, only 8 hearings for judicial waiver

A year ago, when the state began requiring pregnant minors to notify a parent or guardian before having an abortion, pro-choice advocates thought as many as 60 girls a year might choose the alternative and ask a judge for a waiver. The estimate was based on the experience of Massachusetts over 20 years.

Instead, only eight have sought that judicial bypass, according to court spokeswoman Laura Kiernan. All the requests were granted.

What does that say about a controversial law that passed only after several years of debate and an argument before the U.S. Supreme Court? With any real analysis at least a year away, it depends on which side of the abortion debate you ask.

Rep. Kathleen Souza, a Manchester pro-life Republican who sponsored the parental notification law, said Friday the numbers encourage her that few girls had an abortion without a parent’s knowledge.

“The law is a teacher,” Souza said. “And I think the fact that there is a law might have encouraged some young people to go to their parents.”

Souza also believes the year-old law has cut down on the number of pregnant minors coming to New Hampshire for abortions from Massachusetts, which has a tougher law that requires a parent’s consent.

Until New Hampshire adopted its parental notification law, it, like Maine and Vermont, required no parental involvement in a minor’s abortion. But Souza’s evidence is anecdotal.

She knows only what she sees while praying outside the Manchester Planned Parenthood clinic on procedure days. Souza said there have been fewer cars with Massachusetts plates coming to the clinic. Souza also thinks fewer minors are arriving for abortions with just their boyfriends or a best friend.

“I’m sad eight girls (sought a judicial bypass),” Souza said. “On the other hand, I think the law is working.”

What Dalia Vidunas, executive director of the Concord Feminist Health Center, has seen at her clinic suggests Souza might be right. She said she has seen more parents involved in their minor daughters’ abortions since the law took effect a year ago. The center has always encouraged minors to involve a parent when appropriate, she said.

But, Vidunas said, in some cases, that involvement has acerbated, not alleviated, the stress and emotional pain for some pregnant minors. And Vidunas cautioned against reading too much into the fact that only eight girls sought the judicial bypass.

A couple of the center’s patients went that route, Vidunas said, although one reconsidered. But several also expressed interest in going to Maine for their abortions to avoid involving a parent or a judge.

She said although the court staff and judges who’ve held bypass hearings have been “wonderfully” accommodating and sensitive to the pregnant minors, the idea of going to a courthouse and sharing details with strangers is too intimidating for some of the center’s patients.

Vidunas is especially worried about girls who grow desperate enough to order drugs online to abort their fetus at home, alone.

Curious about how easy that option was, Vidunas did a Google search for abortion drugs. Within a half hour, she found a company based in India claiming it could provide the necessary drugs for less than $100. She placed her order and had them within a week, she said.

“There are stories about (those minors) ending up in emergency rooms,” Vidunas said.

Kiernan, the court spokeswoman, declined to provide any details about the age of the girls who sought judicial bypasses. Nor would she say where in the state they lived, citing the confidentiality requirements of the law.

The process, however, is public information. The Concord Feminist Heath Center has devoted a page of its website (feministhealth.org) to detailing the process and providing the judicial bypass forms. The information is also available at the court’s website, courts.state.nh.us.

Any minor who cannot tell a parent or guardian they intend to get an abortion can request a private, confidential hearing before a judge. The judge may waive the notification requirement if he or she finds the minor is mature enough to make the decision on her own.

Any minor who wants one is entitled to a lawyer, at no cost to them, under the measure.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England recruited and trained a dozen lawyers to provide that counsel just before the law went into place. The superior courts, where the hearings are held, have access to the names of those attorneys, as does the Concord Feminist Health Center.

Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy advisor for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said her agency matched 10 pregnant minors with attorneys last year. Seven of them chose to seek a hearing before a judge, she said.

Frizzell said her agency is still evaluating the new law and is working to have medical students do a thorough two-year study of the regulations and how the bypass law is being used.

But she has some early impressions, good and bad.

“We’ve been very pleased with the superior court system,” Frizzell said. “They’ve been able to provide expeditious and confidential access to young women. Courts in multiple locations across the state have really implemented this program in a way that’s very compassionate and very sensitive to the rights and needs of pregnant teens.”

But the law’s requirements targeting minors created complications and delays for some of Planned Parenthood’s adult patients.

The clinics’ staff now must ask abortion patients to prove their age if they are young enough to look under 18. That can be especially difficult for young women who don’t have a driver’s license or ready access to their birth certificate, Frizzell said.

The law can also be a challenge for a minors and parents from other countries. The minor must be able to prove the person claiming to be their parent is their biological parent under the new law. A refugee family may not have that kind of documentation, Frizzell said.

Vidunas and Frizzell are also concerned about the logistical obstacles pregnant minors face if they need to use the judicial bypass. If they don’t have easy access to transportation or are in school, it can be difficult to meet with an attorney and appear again at a court hearing.

Still, Frizzell hasn’t heard that the new law has stopped a minor from having an abortion.

“I have interviewed our counselors and providers about the first year, and I think universally they have seen no evidence that the existence of the new law has led young women to change their mind or alter their decision about ending a pregnancy,” she said.

Frizzell and Vidunas would like to see the law repealed, or in Vidunas’s case, amended to allow girls 16 and older to have an abortion without notifying a parent. “The age of consent (to have sex) in New Hampshire is 16,” Vidunas said.

That’s not expected to happen this year. No lawmaker has filed a bill seeking a repeal. Vidunas and Frizzell said they recognize that the Legislature’s focus this year is writing a budget. Plus, Frizzell said, she’d like to have the results of Planned Parenthood’s planned study before recommending any law changes.

Should a repeal bill emerge this year, it likely won’t have the support of Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. Next year, however, it likely would.

“Governor Hassan is focused first and foremost on developing a fiscally responsible balanced budget and implementing her innovation plan to help businesses create jobs,” said her spokesman Marc Goldberg in an email Friday. “But she continues to oppose the law passed by the previous Legislature over Gov. Lynch’s veto because she believes it is wrong to force victims of incest to go back to their abusers before making their own health care choices and supports its repeal.”

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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