Parental Consent: Through the Eyes of a Former Abortion Clinic Counselor

Note from Randy: Jennifer Eastberg is a good friend who testified at the recent hearings on a proposed parental notification bill in Oregon. Jen's testimony offers some tremendous perspectives from a mental health professional who formerly worked in an abortion clinic.

Mr. Chair, members of the committee, for the record my name is Jennifer Eastberg. I am a LCSW, been have been in the mental health field over twelve years and I am currently in private practice.

I truly appreciate this opportunity to share my experiences and repeated observations—which will illustrate why I am a strong proponent of this parental notification bill. Because feelings run so deep on both sides, it has become extremely difficult to have rational discussions regarding these issues. Assuming that helping and protecting women—especially adolescents—is the ultimate goal for all of us, then we must be willing to listen to each other.

I am a former employee of Lovejoy Surgicenter—one of, if not the largest, abortion facility in the Northwest. I came to Lovejoy after graduating from college and after years of exposure to numerous circumstances, through which I developed an intense feminist perspective. One particular, horrific experience during college, solidified this conviction. I was determined that no man, and especially the government, was ever, ever going to tell me what I could and couldn’t do with my body!!! I was on a mission to do whatever I could, to change what I saw happening to women.

This is important for you to know—because when I say I’ve seen this issue from all sides, I really mean it. While working at Lovejoy, I was exposed to the truth—the grim realities of abortion—that broke through and shattered my belief that I was protecting and helping women. Over time, my conclusion was that I was not helping, but was actually participating in a deceptively, exploitive phenomenon of women today.

Let me qualify this statement, however. I am not implying some conspiracy against women is occurring in the abortion industry. I do believe that most people who work in the industry are genuinely caring, well-intended and genuinely committed individuals. My point is, however, as a front line mental health therapist, my original suspicions and conclusion about the short and long-term effects of abortion have been reconfirmed repeatedly. I continue to see an escalating number of women (especially adolescents) who are struggling with physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational repercussions of having an abortion. I don’t go looking for this stuff. On the contrary, this is an in-my-face reminder of the phenomenon I participated in, that has produced what I am now attempting to remedy.

No one told me to quit. There was no political change or religious conversion. I left the industry because of what I saw. I left because of the creeping realization to abortion’s insidious implications.

Let me address a few of the reasons why passing this bill is so important .... First of all, adolescents face much higher psychological risks than adult women tend to experience from receiving an abortion. To fully grasp the psychological and emotional implications of a young girl having an abortion, one must understand the specific developmental state the teen is working through. Adolescence is a time of intense change—a time of marked physical and internal development—internal development including emotional, intellectual, academic, social and psychological. It is also a time of massive cultural indoctrination. This cultural pressure comes from schools, magazines, music, television, advertisements, movies and peers. They are struggling with the critical challenge of forming their identity. They’re grappling with developing a healthy self-concept and of finding intrinsic value within themselves. Girls are making choices that will have implications for the rest of the lives.

Almost any references regarding adolescent development would include the emotional intensity and fluctuations of this stage. Given the likelihood of increasingly more volatile emotions, a major task is to gain an understanding and tolerance for one’s emotionality. This is a tremendous task in and of itself—not to mention superimposing a traumatic abortion experience onto this fragile period of development. Also, keep in mind, a child’s ability to process and integrate this experience is contingent on how successful she was in working through previous developmental tasks.

The probability of an adolescent internalizing feelings of guilt, shame, confusion and aloneness due to an abortion is overwhelmingly evident. In addition, many of these internalizations are left untouched, without any opportunity for appropriate intervention from family or professional counsel. This will likely lead to (at minimum) some degree of sadness and depression.

Other symptoms may include anger, flashbacks, delayed or long-term grief or anniversary reactions. They may experience memory repression, recurrent, intrusive distressing memories or dreams of the event. They may also struggle with feelings of detachment from others, difficulty keeping close relationships and even suicidal ideation and/or attempts. Pro-choice advocates often claim, as was stated in the April 16th hearing, that C. Everett Koop had issued a report there were no adverse psychological effects of abortion on women. This is simply not true! Dr. Koop stated after the report, that as a physician he knows abortions are dangerous to women’s mental health. What he said in the three page letter he sent to the president, was that the available studies were flawed because they did not examine the problem of the psychological consequences over a long enough period. Based on his own knowledge and personal experience, he said, any long-term studies will add more credibility to those people who say there are serious detrimental health effects of abortion. The realities often remain unnoticed by those not on the front lines.

It is also critical to consider that this adolescent girl will probably struggle with this experience in isolation. Our current laws contribute and actually sanction this. This isolation and secrecy lends credence to the adolescents’ feelings that they have done something wrong. Whether this comes from the mixed messages in society or from her intrinsic feelings about abortion—intervention must happen!!! I consistently hear, “I was all alone ... I went through this all by myself ... Telling a close friend or two didn’t even cut it ... I can’t describe the loneliness I experienced.”

Without some help, ideally parental involvement, the loss of wholeness, self-confidence and self-direction can last well into adulthood. It is important to consider that adolescent’s surface behavior often conveys very little about the struggle within. In fact, these behaviors are often designed to obscure that struggle. Another statement made in the first round of testimony was that these PAS symptoms I just mentioned virtually do not exist. If there really isn’t the existence of PAS, then it would seem reasonable for the abortion industry to incorporate into their informed consent form, something like this: “In the event you experience at least three of these psychological symptoms within one to five or ten years of your abortion, then we will provide some type of appropriate professional counseling/intervention as needed.”

The schizophrenia about our current parental involvement laws has been presented repeatedly in the first Senate hearing. How can we expect any young girl, by herself, listening to adults who don’t even know her, make a good decision about this crisis?

Not to mention the likely possibility of not being fully informed about this procedure and without the guidance of parents who are generally far more sensitive to their child’s physical and emotional well-being. (Can you imagine your daughter, without your knowing, having a surgical procedure that even you may not be fully informed about?!)

These adults, of whom I used to be one, will talk to her for approximately 30-60 minutes prior to scheduling an abortion. In most cases which I observed, the adolescent will not meet the physician prior to the abortion. Most likely, the doctor will never have consulted with this child’s pediatrician—a standard and critical practice of performing good, quality medicine.

As our current laws reflect, we appear to understand how crucial parental involvement is in most areas of an adolescent’s life. Whether this child has shoplifted, received an M.I.P., skipped or is failing in school, has possession of a weapon or is dealing with a crisis pregnancy—in all these cases, we are talking about an adolescent in serious trouble. An adolescent in crisis. If we think about the need for parental involvement regarding abortion the same way we do with the other potentially damaging and destructive adolescent behaviors and activities just mentioned, then this bill would be a moot point—parents involvement would be an assumed expectation.

Conversely, if we are to follow the logic of our current abortion laws—not requiring parental involvement in adolescent antisocial behavior—then the absurdity becomes obvious. For example, the school would not contact you if your child had been absent for a week without your knowledge. The police would not notify you if your son or daughter had been arrested for burglarizing or driving while intoxicated. The legal right to secrecy regarding abortion reflects abortion is being treated as a unique circumstance of an adolescent in trouble/crisis. You can’t logically advocate this position without also including parental involvement in abortion issues as well. Parents who do not have sufficient information about their child cannot adequately know how to guide them.

Will there be parents who will potentially abuse their daughter as a result of finding out about this crisis pregnancy? Yes. (You can be sure, however, the abuse has gone on long before this crisis pregnancy.) Will a child experience more stress as a result of the parental involvement? Yes. However, the same reasons for which parents could be abusive in this abortion circumstance, are no different than how they could react to other adolescent troubles. I don’t deny the reality of increased stress a teenager would experience as a result of a parent knowing the truth. As I just mentioned, there are other situations that could create even more of a potentially abusive reaction from the parent finding out about the circumstances. Parents should have a negative reaction. However, they must intervene with love, adequate communication and, if need be, professional counsel.

Dr. Elizabeth Newhall testified that she had never seen nor heard of a death related to a safe and legal abortion. She had heard of two deaths as a result of parental involvement (parental notification laws). The death of Becky Bell and Spring Adams are horrible, tragic deaths. They should have never happened! Neither should the deaths of hundreds of women who had safe and legal abortions. I have in my hand copies of numerous newspaper articles about women who have died from abortions. One death as a result of abortion is too many! It concerns me however, that apparently physicians aren’t aware of these deaths as well. This is crucial to know because this could provide the necessary opportunities, information for physicians to improve the quality of their medical procedures. Examining all these cases to understand what went wrong is good medical practice.

As was stated in the first round of testimony on April 16th, apparently 75% of adolescent girls do actually involve their parents. This was reported as the norm—which is great even if it was half that percentage. Therefore, we cannot allow the exceptions to this norm—the dysfunctional families—to dictate how we are going to shape/develop our laws. Laws need to be based on the norm of how families are supposed to function.

Because some parents are failing, are we going to maintain laws that can actually enable their dysfunction to continue? What brings dysfunctional families into counseling or to seek some appropriate type of intervention, is crises. It could be a crisis resulting from a mother’s alcoholism, a father’s unemployment, an acting out teenager or their daughter’s crisis pregnancy. The dysfunctional family needs to be given the opportunity to function as they should—at least be given the chance to explore this crisis in an appropriate, safe forum. While the goal of not mandating parental involvement is to provide protection, this will most likely enable the dysfunction to continue. By not structuring abortion laws to be conducive to family or other appropriate involvement, we are also directly contributing to the potential impairment and fragility of the adolescent’s continued development.

There is so much more to be said that supports the passage of this bill. I do though, very much appreciate this opportunity to share my observations with you.

This article appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of Eternal Perspectives.