It’s Time for Illinois to Scrap the Parental Notification Act

Many states have laws that require that a minor under the age of 18 must involve their parents or legal guardians in the decision to get an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy. There are differences in the way the requirements are written and enforced—some states require that one parent or guardian consent or be notified, while others require the second parent must also consent.

Illinois Governor Pritzker has vowed that the state will be a beacon of hope for women in need of abortions, which is important as other midwestern states attempt to put new restrictions in place—but even the Land of Lincoln has a parental notification law.  Now, it’s come under renewed fire.

(Jordan Uhl / Creative Commons)

The Parental Notification Act (PNA) passed in 1995 offers a loophole: it dictates that minors who want or need to avoid alerting their parents can utilize Judicial Bypass to do so, which requires that they go to court and appear before a judge to face questioning about their decision. But courts are public settings and, especially if someone lives in a small town, it means they might be recognized in the process of obtaining one. The reality is that judicial bypass is a cruel and emotionally upsetting experience that does nothing to protect the health or well being of young women; instead, it forces minors to be publicly judged for what should be a private choice.

Parental notification can sound like a good idea—why not require a conversation between a young woman and her parents? But not every minor has good parents. Many young women facing an unwanted pregnancy fear the response of their families, which can include emotional or physical harm, demands that the minor carry to term against their will or the loss of financial support or even shelter. In some cases, the prospect of telling parents can even lead to suicidal thoughts and deep depression.  In one shocking case in Illinois, a forced conversation about unwanted pregnancy would have resulted in the likely death of the young woman by her own brother because the families’ religion required that for the family to save face.  

It’s also worth noting that for no other medical decision do minors who are pregnant need to consult with their parents. Young women can become pregnant and carry to term without notifying their parents, even though pregnancy is far more dangerous than an abortion. They have the right to take medication without consulting their parents.

Pregnant teens are vulnerable, and they have few resources. Most of them are in high school—and to avoid parental notification by using the judicial bypass system, they have to secretly go to court without their parents learning about it, likely missing class in the process. They might not even have access to personal cell phones or have email accounts that their parents will not read, or a form of transportation to and from court for their appearance.

For six years, the ACLU in Illinois has assigned pro bono lawyers to each minor in need of support for a judicial bypass—someone who helps to guide young women through this emotionally fraught process. But even that doesn’t stop it from being a punitive and upsetting experience. “It is so cruel to put young women through this,: Melissa Widen, an attorney who supports young women navigating their judicial bypass hearings, told Ms., “who are trying to do the responsible thing in their lives.”

Widen notes that the system isn’t just “tragic”—it’s also “time consuming, unnecessary, stressful,” and “does nothing to help a young woman to be safer and healthier.” It’s also unpopular: Over 70 percent of people in Illinois think that the decision to use abortion should be a choice a woman makes with her doctor. 

State Rep. Chris Welch has sponsored legislation to repeal Illinois’ PNA in the House. “This law was passed by male legislatures that have no place telling women what to do with their bodies,” he says. “Legislatures have no business legislating family relationships.” The legislature will take up this bill during their next session, between January 28 and May 31.

Hopefully, it will end up on Governor Pritzker’s desk—and he will sign it. It’s what’s best for young women, and it sets an urgent national standard during a fraught time for reproductive rights.


Sheila Markin Nielsen is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and author of The Markin Report, a blog on the right side of history and the left side of politics making sense of a world turned upside down.