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One Small Step for the Senate, One Large Step for Mankind

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Message Jayne Stahl
And womankind, too, I might add. Making it harder for girls under the age of 18 to exercise control over their own bodies, the Senate today passed an important measure, which now goes to the House, on the way to deconstructing Roe v. Wade. While Beirut has been up in flames, a bill passed, by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, that makes it illegal to transport a pregnant girl for an abortion, across state lines, without first notifying her parents.

This legislation makes it a felony to "transport" an underaged female interstate "for purposes of evading parental notification laws." (AP) How, pray tell, would one know that the purpose of transporting the teenager across state lines is to avoid parental notification laws in one's home state? Clearly, one wouldn't expect a teenager, or her companion, to acknowledge their interstate journey is to avoid informing her parents; "Yes, officer, we're leaving Missouri, and heading out to California, so my folks won't find out I'm having an abortion." Hmmm....I don't think so.

So, by implication, the bill is designed to make it a felony to help a youngster get an abortion in another state, or to cross state lines for the purpose of terminating a pregnancy, or at least lay the groundwork for such legislation. As Senator Ted Kennedy aptly suggests this Congress has better things to do than "criminalize grandparents." Might one suggest, for example, that Congress look into the constitutionality of this president's abuse of signing laws, as well as the NSA's circumvention of FISA law, for openers. Oh, and what about outsourcing torture? Why not have our elected representatives use our tax dollars wisely, and investigate this administration's practice of sending detainees to Jordan, and other countries, for physical, and psychological abuse? What kind of warped logic seeks to prosecute a child's aunt for helping her cross over to another state to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and, at the same time, lets commanding officers off the hook when infantrymen rape, and murder fourteen year old girls during the invasion, and occupation, of a sovereign country? Moreover, will these officers face charges when they cross from Iraq to the United States?

In an election year, when a president is scoring low marks with the conservative wing of his Party, what better time to introduce draconian, and utterly irrelevant legislation which is aimed to pacify the ultra-right, even those who think of themselves as ultra-lite ultra-right. We would expect women in the Senate to be unusually vocal on this issue. But, the absence of California Senator Dianne Feinstein was conspicuous, and Ms. Play Both Sides of the Fence Clinton, as always, managed to cloak her inchoate neutrality behind the phrase: "We're going to sacrifice a lot of girls' lives here." Indeed, and we're also going to sacrifice a lot of common sense if we think, as Oklahoma Republican Senator Coburn suggests, that abstinence is the most effective prophylactic for teen pregnancy.

What a frightening thought that we live in an age when we can communicate with people 8,000 miles away with the speed of light, and members of the United States Senate are still advocating abstinence. What a thought that we're dealing with a public health issue of seismic proportions, an international crisis, HIV/AIDS, and there are members of Congress, and high up in this administration, who think they can turn the clock back to the days of Queen Victoria or, better still, to the days when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. Unremarkably, these folks are members of the same class of dinosaur that brought us Creationism under the guise of "intelligent design."

More terrifying still is the thought that most Americans agree with legislation mandating parental notification for girls under the age of 18. In the best of all possible worlds, girls should be able to notify their parents. I did---about 20 years after my abortion which, fortunately for me, happened right after choice became legal. I can tell you this---my parents would have been just fine, thank you, had I never told them. And, if we force even one teenager girl into a realizing a pregnancy for which she is unprepared because of her parent's' agenda, that's one too many.

Ironically, those who propose abstinence as a solution to teen pregnancy, and tout parental rights are, more often than not, the first to scream the loudest about cracking down on welfare, and food stamps. Yet, these are the ones who want the law to intervene, on their behalf, to insure that they get to have the last word on whether or not their daughters give birth. Does it occur to those who demand to be notified before their child can legally have an abortion may, in some cases, be condemning her to a life of poverty, and unfulfilled dreams should they insist that the birth proceed? It's essential here that we distinguish between legal and moral. While it may be the right thing to do to notify a parent, is it the legal thing to do, or does this youngster have constitutional rights to protect her privacy that are being implicitly infringed upon? More importantly, how can we expect emotional maturity from our youth when we deprive them of choice, and make no mistake, these decisions affect young men as much as young women.

By handing out prison sentences, in cases like these, we are, in essence, criminalizing choice, and sending the message to our daughters and sons that they're old enough to procreate, but not to choose whether or not to parent. The criminal justice system is not now, nor must it ever be, the proper domain for hashing out family politics, and a society that deprives its young people of their privacy deprives them of the right to choose and, by extension, the right to self-determination.
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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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