During my first week in Maine, when I was fresh out of pediatric training, a girl came into my office alone, complaining of menstrual awfulness. Was there anything I could do to help? I gave her a prescription for estrogen pills, which likely would solve the problem, and forgot about it until later that afternoon when I got a call from the child’s mother, haranguing me for giving birth control pills to her daughter without discussing it with her parent first, who, it turns out, was sitting in the waiting room.
The young lady had told her mother that her knee hurt and she needed to see the doctor, then shifted, telling me, the doctor, that she had bad periods and needed something for that. Well, that mom told me in clear terms that if I was going to make it in Maine I had best recognize that 16-year-olds occasionally make decisions that aren’t the wisest, and that is why they still live with their parents.
I had the telephone equivalent of being grabbed by the ear and dunked head first in a bucket of ice water, then getting my knuckles rapped with a carpenter’s square. I took my lumps, glumly making the expected excuses and the appropriate apologies, but a few years later, by the time I had treated a half-million teens, I fully understood where that mom was coming from. The fact is that teens are still kids and often aren’t as smart as they look, or are too smart for their own good. No offense to kids, I was one once too. I can’t believe some of the things I took for granted as being good things that just plain were not.
I’ve learned. Now when I offer medications or suggest referrals, and the kids are alone, I ask them to go out to the waiting room and invite their parent in to be part of the decision. Guess what? It’s worked out better.
This has been about the little stuff: medications, shots, lab tests etc. But in Maine a girl can go to a women’s clinic, schedule an abortion, have the procedure, and be home for dinner afterward with the parent being none the wiser. I occasionally consider what my knuckles would have looked like if I had scheduled my patient for an abortion rather than just given a script for estrogen pills. I might have needed to take a break from surgery.
The reality is abortion is about the only procedure a minor teenager can undertake without parental consent. Forget for a moment about abortion; imagine a parent discovering in the evening that when their child had gone off to school, he had diverted to a clinic where he secretly had gotten a mole removed, or a chunk of cartilage fished from his knee. Imagine the provider trying to justify this. Or better, try explaining a complication to a parent when that parent had not given consent in the first place.
Doc: “Hi, Mr. Jones, your daughter is here in the ER. Seems she had a complication from anesthesia this morning. Don’t worry, she’ll be good as new once this swelling’s under control …”
It sounds nutty, except that it can legally happen, in the case of abortions. LD 1457, now before the Legislature, seeks to redress this, strengthening parental consent rules for abortion to incorporate, among other things, parental consent, with necessary allowances in cases where the parent is alleged to have been a party to the pregnancy or has abused the child in some other significant way.
From a political perspective, I am not worked up about this bill. These changes before the Legislature would simply bring abortion procedures into line with every other normal medical procedure done to minors.
As a pediatrician, however, concerned about kids’ safety, I am convinced this is a good bill, and is essential to protect teens from the biggest danger they face daily — themselves — by involving their parents in all the key medical decisions they may confront, including the decision whether or not to have an abortion.
Peter Morningstar is a pediatrician in the Caribou area.