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Tuesday, June 12, 1979


How Not to Deal With Teenage Sexuality

By Myriam Miedzian Malinovich


In 1976 the New York State Legislature voted to require parental consent before minors could undergo abortion. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Carey, and subsequently the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri vs. Danforth ruled that parental consent requirements were unconstitutional. A new bill requiring that parents be notified by registered mail of their daughter's impending abortion is now being considered by the Seriate and Assembly Health Committees,

The concerns of pro-notification people are shared by most Americans who would like to see family ties strengthened, and cringe at the thought of a 13-year-old girl undergoing an abortion, possibly with serious medical complications, without her parents knowing about it.

The question is whether a notification requirement would be an effective way of dealing with these concerns. I believe not. On the basis of preliminary studies, as well as the experiences of abortion counselors, it seems that most young girls are adamant about not wanting their parents to know about their pregnancy, If notification were required they would either resort to illegal abortions or would procrastinate to the point of ending up with an unwanted baby or a medically complicated second-trimester abortion. This can hardly be described as a strengthening of family ties.

Furthermore, given current rates of battered children and the general level of violence in our society, those cases in which a notification requirement might effectively lead a young girl to confide in her parents to her benefit, would be offset by those in which she would be physically endangered.

The bill for parental notification is, I believe, a misguided attempt to deal with the current epidemic of teenage pregnancies. As is so often the case of late, we focus on superficial and ineffectual measures to deal with major social problems, thus avoiding the complex moral and social issues underlying them,

Underlying the parental notification issue is the problem of teenage sexuality. It is not an exaggeration to say that current attitudes toward teenage sexuality - especially female teenage sexuality-border on the schizophrenic.

On the one hand, a majority of American parents seem to be opposed to their daughters having premarital sex at all - a recent study of "a cross-section of parents from every walk of life" undertaken by the Project on Human Sexual Development found that "less than 30 per cent of mothers [and less than 40 per cent of fathers] want to convey to their daughters that pre-marital sex is permissible."

On the other hand, children from the earliest age are exposed to a constant flow of sexual permissiveness and promotion whether it be in the form of TV ads and programs, pornographic magazines on display at local newsstands and stationers, or sexually explicit films rated PG.

Disco dancing for children is the latest fad "The kids are doing all the latest bumps and grinds," a Queens disco manager tells us in a recent Cue magazine article. A photograph shows us a sexy-looking 8-year-old in tight pants and top, high heels, and lipstick - she is a guest at her girl friend's eighth birthday party held at Studio 54.

Given the sexual climate in which American children grow up, it seems surprising that not more than 20 per cent of them have had intercourse by the time they are 13 or 14. It is not surprising, however, that most girls are adamant about not wanting their parents to know when they become pregnant-they are well aware of the discrepancy between their parents' real attitude and the sexual permissiveness with which they are surrounded.

Parents, weakened by the mass media's undermining of their authority, are unable to deal effectively with the conflict between their own sexual attitudes and those of the society in which their children are being reared, Instead of parental notification we need the beginnings of a dialogue on the underlying causes of the current epidemic of teenage child bearing, abortion and venereal disease. How are the media, pornography and social institutions contributing to it, and how should they be regulated? What can we do to buttress parental authority appropriately in a society so dominated by mass media and commercial interests? What do we-parents, educators, psychiatrists, clergy-think is right and wrong with respect to teenage sexuality, and why? How do we educate our children on the basis of these beliefs instead of commercially motivated values and attitudes?

Resistance to raising these questions should not be underestimated-both because of civil libertarian fears of censorship and commercial fears of losing money, But we will have to raise them if we are to begin taking steps out of our current moral and social chaos.

Myriam Miedzian Malinovich has been philosopher-in-residence at Planned Parenthood of New York City.

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