NEW YORK -- The abortion bill most likely to become federal law this year would affect a relatively small number of pregnant teens, yet its impact on them could be dramatic -- sharply reducing the options for girls in many states who dread telling their parents of their plight.
Supporters and opponents each offer vivid worst-case scenarios in debating the bill, which was included this week in the Senate Republicans' priority list. It would outlaw transporting a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion in order to evade parental consent or notification laws in the girl's home state.
The bill's advocates evoke the image of a girl being impregnated by an abusive older man who then drives them to an out-of-state abortion clinic so the girl's parents and the authorities won't find out.
Opponents of the bill say it would criminalize the well-meaning acts of an aunt, older sister or other confidante who assist a girl terrified of being beaten or evicted from home if her parents learned of the pregnancy.
"You're talking about girls who really need support -- let them use whatever support they have," said Shawn Towey of the National Network of Abortion Funds. "This bill is going to have a chilling effect on people who are just there to help."
Titled the Child Custody Protection Act, and carrying a sentence of up to one year in prison, the bill has bounced around Congress for years, winning House approval three times but never reaching a vote on the Senate floor. Only now -- after making the Senate GOP's Top 10 priority list -- do supporters and foes believe its passage is probable.
"We're proceeding as if it's going to pass," said Lorraine Kenny of the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project. ACLU lawyers already are studying possible challenges on grounds that the bill violates the right to travel from state to state and does not make an exception for cases when a girl's health is jeopardized.
Activists on both sides expect support for the bill from majority Republicans, perhaps joined by some Democrats. Some doubt Democratic leaders will wage an all-out fight against it.
"Politically, it would be very high risk for the Senate Democrats to filibuster this bill," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "Polls show that about 80 percent of Americans support the concept of parental notification."
Opponents agree that young women are better off telling parents about a pregnancy, and say most do so voluntarily. But abortion-rights activists argue that politicians should not impose mandates that might backfire in cases where family communication already has broken down.
"Instead of encouraging them to involve a trusted adult who may be able to offer much-needed assistance, this law will cause some young women to face interstate travel for medical care alone," says a NARAL Pro-Choice America briefing paper. "Even worse, it may force young women to turn to self-induced or illegal abortions."
Thirty-two states have parental-involvement laws in force, though the National Right to Life Committee considers eight of the laws ineffectual because of loopholes.
In all 32 states except Utah, a procedure called judicial bypass allows a minor to petition a judge for permission to get an abortion without telling her parents. In many courts, these waivers are granted routinely to any reasonably mature girl who asks; elsewhere the requests often are denied, prompting some girls to opt for an abortion in another state without a parental involvement law.
Abortion-rights advocates cite Alabama -- where consent of one parent is required before a minor's abortion -- as a state with notable roadblocks for girls seeking a court waiver.
Jennifer Dalven of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project said judges in Birmingham and some other Alabama communities oppose waivers so adamantly that legal aid attorneys now advise pregnant minors not to bother requesting one. Instead, Dalven said, girls are counseled to consider getting an abortion in Georgia or Florida, where procedures are somewhat more flexible.
"Judges in Alabama call teens who seek abortion murderers, force them to sit through religious programming, and still deny their petitions," Dalven said. "For these teens, going out of state is their only option. ... It's been a critical safety valve that would be lost if this bill is passed."
The number of girls who might be affected by the law is difficult to calculate -- perhaps a few thousand annually.
In 2000, the latest year with national statistics, about 92,000 girls 17 and under obtained legal abortions -- 7 percent of the U.S. total. Many of those teens were from states that don't require parental involvement, including populous California, New York and Illinois, while many of the girls in states with the laws notified their parents rather than traveling secretly out-of-state.
On the Net:
National Right to Life Committee: http://www.nrlc.org/
NARAL Pro-Choice America: http://www.naral.org/