Abortion in an Election Year

They said no to grandparents. They said no to clergy. They even said no to sex education.

“Congress ought to have higher priorities than turning grandparents into criminals," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

"We're going to sacrifice a lot of girls' lives," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

At issue was legislation passed by the Senate this week that makes it a crime to take a teenage girl across state lines to secure an abortion in a state that does not have a parental consent law.

An overwhelming majority of Americans — and I mean 80-90 percent — believe that a girl who is pregnant because of rape or incest has a right to abortion. So why make it a crime to help her?

The answer is very simple. Look at the calendar. It’s an election year.

Most pregnant girls do turn to their parents for help and counsel. They don’t need the government to force them to do so. You would think conservatives would know that. But when it comes to abortion, all of a sudden all those “small government” conservatives start favoring interventionist, big Brother Government. Funny, isn’t it?

No one knows for sure what percent of all pregnant girls are victims of incest, or what percent of pregnant teenagers would be subject to physical abuse were they to tell their parents about their pregnancies. The exact numbers don’t really matter. That these problems are real and significant has long been recognized by the Supreme Court. In 1979, the Court held that no state may make parental approval an absolute prerequisite to a teenager securing an abortion without affording some alternative bypass procedure for girls who are victims of abuse, or likely to be abused, if they tell their parents that they are pregnant.

But the procedure the Supreme Court suggested as an alternative is hardly a realistic one for many frightened, pregnant teenagers. All you have to do if you’re a likely victim of abuse is bring a lawsuit and convince a judge that it’s in your best interest to have an abortion. Easy enough, right? Just go file a lawsuit. How many of you reading this would know how to file a lawsuit on your own? Now imagine you’re a scared pregnant teenager, and the only alternative to parental consent in your state is filing a lawsuit. Is that really an alternative?

Or maybe there’s a grandmother, or an aunt or uncle or trusted friend, who is willing to take you to New York or Connecticut of Washington or Oregon or the District of Columbia, to one of the states where teenagers are allowed to have abortions without parental consent.

Should it be a federal crime for your grandmother to give you a ride?

Most people support the idea of parental consent before a girl gets an abortion. That’s probably because most people, good parents that we are, would want to know if our own daughters were pregnant, so we could see them through the process, whatever the decision. Then again, most people don’t abuse their kids. And most people don’t need a state law to force their kids to tell them about a pregnancy, or a federal law to punish their grandparents for helping them.

The question is not what’s right for most people. The question is what law is right for the minority who will be most affected, perhaps tragically, by its provisions.

Under the law passed by the Senate, taking a teen across state lines to have an abortion would be a crime punishable up to a year in prison as well as fines. There is an exception for cases where the pregnancy endangered the teen's life.

Senator Dianne Feinstein sponsored an amendment to protect grandparents and clergy from liability. It was voted down. So was an amendment to increase spending on sex education.

A predator who takes a child across state lines is guilty of any number of crimes, not the least of them statutory rape. Concern with predators does not explain voting against the Feinstein amendment.

Republicans denied that they were playing midterm politics, seeking to appeal to the conservative base at the expense of teenage girls who can’t vote.

Imagine prosecuting a grandfather for driving his granddaughter to New York. Have these Senators no shame?

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.

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