The Long and Polarizing History of the Parental Notification Debate

Authored By 
Jenna Healey
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
Publication date 
March 30, 2015

In 1982, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed a requirement that parents be notified whenever a minor child (under the age of 18) received contraception at a federal clinic. This regulation, dubbed the “squeal rule” by the popular press, was the Reagan administration’s response to the epidemic of teenage pregnancy stoking panic nationwide. The furor over the “squeal rule” was the first national debate over the issue of parental notification, and it revealed a deep divide between the left and right on the question of teenage pregnancy prevention.

Just last month, lawmakers in Washington and New Mexico introduced two new parental notification bills into their respective state legislatures. The proposed laws require abortion providers to notify the parents of any minor who wished to terminate her pregnancy. If these bills pass, Washington and New Mexico will join 37 other states in requiring either parental notification or consent before a minor can obtain an abortion.

In 2015, just as in 1982, the debate over parental notification splits cleanly along partisan lines. Meanwhile, the arguments presented on both sides of the debate remain remarkably unchanged. For Republicans, parental notification preserves parental rights while reducing the number of abortions performed on teenagers. For Democrats, parental notification tramples on the rights of adolescents while causing the teen birth rate to skyrocket. But why, thirty years later, are we still having the same debate? Why do issues of parental notification and teen pregnancy continue to be so polarizing?

In theory, teenage pregnancy is the perfect bipartisan issue. As President Obama quipped in this year’s State of the Union Address: “We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows.” Undoubtedly, no lawmaker on either side of the aisle would argue that high teenage pregnancy and abortion rates are a good thing. And yet, lawmakers have historically found very little middle ground when it comes to issues of teenage pregnancy prevention.

My research on the history of teenage pregnancy policy in the United States shows that Republicans and Democrats began to diverge on the question of teenage pregnancy prevention during the late 1970s, when national panic about rising teen pregnancy rates hit an all-time high. As social conservatives began to rally around issues such as abortion and sex education, it was inevitable that a high-profile issue such as teenage pregnancy would become a central piece of the New Right agenda.

On the surface, the partisan split revolved around the question of prevention. While Democrats advocated for sex education and liberal access to contraception, Republicans pushed programs to encourage abstinence and parental involvement in matters of adolescent sexuality. In principle, this question should have been easy to resolve. Based on the available evidence, lawmakers could simply determine which of the suggested interventions was the most effective in reducing rates of teen pregnancy.

The problem was, however, that Democrats and Republicans interpreted the available body of research in very different ways.  In fact, both sides relied heavily on the same set of data to make their case. The study in question, conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, suggested that 1 in 4 teenagers would stop attending a family planning clinic if a parental notification requirement was implemented. It also indicated, however, that two-thirds of these teenagers would switch to non-prescription contraceptives or stop having sex altogether in order to avoid pregnancy. Depending on what side you were on, the data could be used to either undermine or support the “squeal rule” regulation.

Liberal opponents of the “squeal rule” were vocal about what they perceived to be Republican irrationality. With a level of vitriol that wouldn’t look out of place in today’s snarkiest twitter feed, angry citizens claimed the legislation “boggles the mind with its illogical conclusions” and accused the government of acting “without a shred of evidence.” Liberal critics insisted that Republicans were anti-science, anti-expertise, and were willfully ignorant of “the facts.” And yet, Republican policymakers were engaging with the very same facts, and coming to radically different conclusions.

Ultimately, the “squeal rule” was struck down in federal court on statutory grounds. The controversy, however, left a legacy of bitterness that is reignited each time the Republicans try to mandate parental involvement in issues of adolescent sexuality. The rhetoric also remains remarkably the same: while Democrats hurl accusations of irrationality and ignorance, the Republicans extoll the superiority of their approach to teen pregnancy prevention.

This discourse, however, does a disservice to the children and adolescents both groups claim to serve. While social scientific expertise should play a central role in the policymaking process, it isn’t enough to claim the scientific high ground. If policymakers are committed to reducing rates of teenage pregnancy, they must be willing to grapple with the deeper ideological issues undermining productive conversation. Instead of pitting parents and medical providers against each other, lawmakers should acknowledge that both groups have an essential role to play in the prevention of teen pregnancy.

Jenna Healey is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program for the History of Science and Medicine and an ISPS Policy Fellow. Her research focuses on the history of reproductive technologies and fertility behavior, with a specific emphasis on the intersection between age and pregnancy.