Young pregnant teens don’t have the mental maturity to understand the implications of an abortion, new research suggests.
Parents should be involved in the abortion decision, rather than giving all girls, no matter what their age, the right to consent, Otago University masters law student Michael Morrison said.
The current “clumsy” legislation that allows teens to chose to have an abortion without their parent’s permission is outdated and should be repealed, he said.
“We’re relying on an ancient piece of legislation.”
Morrison’s law and ethics essay, which argues this case, has won second place in an international academic writing competition.
The paper has been published in the latest edition of the Asian Bioethics Review.
In New Zealand children aged under 16 generally need their parent’s permission to undergo medical procedures, except when it comes to abortions.
This legislation means girls can consent to an abortion as long as they are sexually mature.
The abortion law came into effect in 1977 before experts had a full understanding of how a young person’s brain works, Morrison said.
However, he said international experts now agree a teenager’s brain only develops the ability understand a decision between the ages of 14 and 17.
About 50 girls aged between 11 and 14 have an abortion each year. There are also 2000 abortions in the age group 15 to 19.
Morrison said for the young girls who don’t tell their parents, they may not understand the long-term implications of their decision.
“The child is trying to process a very significant procedure alone.”
Parents should be involved in the decision, something research has also shown most young people would want, he said.
“Children really do want their parents involved.”
The current law was developed with good intentions to protect children, but Morrison said it goes too far.
“It is incredibly clumsy and it is not based on our current knowledge on when children have the capacity to consent.”
A test case in the English courts found a child should have the right consent when they have the ability to understand the implications, which varies between teens.
A difficult issue. My views are:
- Regardless of age, the final decision has to rest with the pregnant girl. She should not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, against her will.
- However if they are aged under 16, parents should be involved. I don’t think a parent can be doing their job if their under-wage daughter is having to make this decision, without their knowledge.
- There will be some circumstances where it will be in the best interests of the pregnant girl to not have their parents informed – if they are likely to be abusive, or there may be incest etc.
- Overall I favour doctors being required to inform parents if someone aged under 16 wishes to have an abortion, but with the ability for a family court judge to give waivers. Ultimately though the wishes of the pregnant girl should prevail over their parents, if they don’t agree.