Recent high profile news events involving abortion rights have revealed that while the omnipresent skirmishing may temporarily subside, it doesn’t take much to stir the issue into a new frenzy. The latest embarrassing public relations snafu involves the Birmingham, Alabama, Planned Parenthood clinic, which has been placed probation for a year. Before there was ACORN and young right-wing activists with visual evidence, last year a California-based anti-abortion group employed the services of an UCLA student to secretly videotape instances of wrongdoing. Posing as a 14-year-old girl seeking an clandestine abortion after getting pregnant with her 31-year-old boyfriend, the tape revealed that the worker she spoke to agreed not to report the matter, in violation of state law, and added that it might be possible to perform the procedure without the knowledge of her parents. By the time the video came to the attention of the Alabama Attorney General, the statue of limitations had passed, but it did trigger a revealing in-depth investigation via Alabama’s Department of Public Health.
John A. MacDonald of The Birmingham News has the whole story.
Perhaps the most damning allegation is that the clinic has come under increasing scrutiny and fire due to new charges which allege that workers a negligently refused to report obvious instances of childhood sexual abuse.
In that potential abuse case, a 13-year-old girl reported that she became sexually active at 12 and came in for two abortions within four months. She was not asked by staff about potential abuse, and her case was not reported to authorities.
“If she was being abused, you give her a chance to be rescued from that situation,” said Rick Harris, director of health provider standards for the Alabama Department of Public Health.
This matter only throws hot water onto an already overheated issue. Aside from the immediate emotional appeals, explosive revelations like these reveal that local government often fails to adequately police itself internally and to follow rudimentary protocol. As for why these seemingly basic rule were not followed, perhaps the worker or workers in question at the clinic might have sought to protect at least two young women, and likely more, from the stigma and emotional turmoil of prosecution and a trial by jury. Indeed, our own initial responses might be to cover up or skirt past tragic situations like these out of sympathy for the victim or out of our own desire to not have to think about them. Some may consider tactics like those tantamount to cowardice or sloth, and there is an strong argument to be made for that as well. But no matter what justification and rationalization may be provided, state law does require those who observe cases of flagrant child sexual abuse to report them immediately to the proper channels. So many of these cases are not reported enough already and this is, in part, the reason why these sorts of offenses are shockingly prevalent in our supposedly civilized society.
In nine out of nine cases tested, the clinic did not get girls ages 13-15 to authenticate the signature of the parent providing consent for the abortion. In one case, the person who signed the consent for a 15-year-old girl provided an expired driver’s license of a person with a different last name and address from the girl’s. A subsequent review of Alabama birth records showed that person was not listed as a parent.
The pattern that emerges here is that of gross incompetence and dereliction of duty rather than some sort of willful desire to broach protocol and skirt the law. I doubt that anyone holds such a radical agenda that they would choose to violate parent notification rules and in so doing, fail to adequately check identities before proceeding. While I have always believed that requiring parental consent before an abortion can be performed unfairly restricts a woman’s right to choose, ANY woman’s right to choose, I am deeply uncomfortable with the notion of civil disobedience at the workplace in this context. There is lots of blame to go around, but I point the finger at the system itself. I think the most likely is that what transpired over time is that women would arrive without the necessary paperwork to move forward and after observing much delay in extracting the necessary signatures and confirmation in prior cases, clinic workers eventually overlooked them to expedite the process and make their own jobs easier.
One can form any number of conclusions based on the available information. Anti-choice proponents will surely use this story to confirmation of their own views in this and those of us who are pro-choice may, as I do, find it hard to easily make sense of this. I seek not to be an apologist for this kind of behavior, specifically because it makes women’s reproductive rights and abortion services agencies look foolish and incompetent. But what it does highlight, however, is how uncomfortable we are when it comes to frank discussions about abortion. We can screech and yell about baby killers or those who murder abortionists, but we rarely really talk about the lives of individual women who find themselves faced with a grave situation—presented with the unenviable option of either terminating their pregnancy or bringing a child into the world. If we, as part of our 9-5 job, sat across the desk from a child whose pregnancy clearly resulted from a case of incest or rape, it would be tempting to wish to spare her from any subsequent trauma. Since a strong taboo already is in place regarding these sorts of crimes, it would be easier to simply take the path of least resistance.
The story also implies that sad tales like these are hardly unusual. To this I add that anyone who has dealt with our convoluted legal system knows that justice, assuming it eventually arrives, is not exactly a precise, timely affair. Court dockets have long been swelled past capacity, trials routinely last weeks on end, and moreover the emotional stress involved with lawyers, fees, strategies, and the massive amount of hoops to jump through make the process thoroughly exhausting for everyone involved. Though I do not absolve the Planned Parenthood workers for refusing to follow their job descriptions and adhere to the letter of the law, I do recognize that often existing systems are so ridiculously complex and set in place to patch a hole, not for the ease of implementation. After a time this encourages people to take short cuts. If we ever really wished to devise a world that was fairer and more efficient, we’d adopt a system whereby the only rules we imposed were those absolutely necessary. As it stands now, if one person breaks a rule, everyone else is punished by having to adhere to a new regulation or restrictive standard. Good management punishes, and if need be, removes the individual offender, not the collective body. Pushing aside for a moment our own passionate defenses, we can learn from ACORN and Planned Parenthood if this pushes us to closely re-examine whether rules, regulations, standards, and statutes really make our lives easier, or burden us to the point that we’d just as soon ignore them wholesale.