“I wish I could vote so bad.”

By Marissa Kantor

On November 8th, in one of the fiercest faith-based rivalries sparked in California in decades, voters over the age of 18 will decide whether or not girls under the age of 18 have to tell their parents before they can get an abortion. In a roundabout way, of course. Proposition 73, also known as the “tell a parent” initiative, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would require doctors to notify parents at least 48 hours before carrying out an abortion on a minor, leaving the abortion seeker herself a passive observer.

A coalition of groups under the umbrella of Life on the Ballot, the group that banded together in 2003 to gather signatures to get the issue on the ballot, and is largely funded by Domino’s Pizza’s founder Tom Monaghan, have been working hard to make sure that this time, parents understand just what is at stake. (A state law requiring parental consent by abortion-seeking minors was passed in 1987 and removed in 1997 for violating the Constitutional right to privacy.) Since they are fighting for parental notification and not abortion itself, the coalition’s visual and statistical ammo has taken the form of glossy pictures of at-risk teenage girls, images that, while easier to digest than bloody fetuses, are harder to fight.

Yes on 73 and Parents’ Right to Know California are two of the most active groups on the pro-73 side. The proposition itself is not new; the Yes on 73 folks point out on the sidebars of their website that more than 30 states already have similar laws in place, and these states have “experienced real reductions in pregnancies and abortions among minor girls.” What is new is the degree to which propaganda, statistics, and visual images are being employed across California, largely inside houses of worship, areas formerly deemed politics-free zones, at least by the IRS tax code.

Proposition 73 — which is actually an “initiative constitutional amendment” officially called the “Waiting Period and Parental Notification Before Termination of Minor’s Pregnancy” — has moved out of the realm of politics and into the pews of mega-churches across California. Although there are the usual pro-life religious elements to the debate, this time arguments have wiggled their way into a more parent-oriented conversation on the rights of parents to care for their children.

The LA Daily News has a simple explanation in an article on their election endorsements: “The reasons for such laws and policies is sound: Most minors lack the maturity to make difficult life decisions. And in tough times, they need their parents, even if they don’t know it.”

The official version from the Yes on 73 folks is not much different. The “500-word Argument” in favor of Proposition 73 in the Official Voter Information Guide that was mailed to approximately 13 million California households with one or more registered voters began with these statements:

“In California, a daughter under 18 can’t get an aspirin from the school nurse, get a flu shot, or have a tooth pulled without a parent knowing. However, surgical or chemical abortions can be secretly performed on minor girls — even 13 years old or younger — without parents’ knowledge.”

On the other side, The Campaign for Teen Safety — the broad-based coalition that stands in opposition to the amendment — states clearly and boldly on their website: Good family communication can’t be imposed by Government. Even the “judicial bypass” element of the proposition does not alleviate their concerns; why should a teenager, pregnant and already terrified, have to face a judge to make a decision about her body? What she needs, they argue, is a counselor.

As a corollary to this, doctors and scientists worry that the new proposed definition of abortion — causing “death of the unborn child, a child conceived but not yet born” — could have drastic implications for stem cell research. A policy brief released by scientists at USC warns of the serious dangers to stem cell research if “the unborn child” language is let into the state Constitution.

Is this just the same argument twisted into a new form? Are we once again faced with the linguistic dilemma of two opposing sides that don’t speak the same language?

Not exactly. The new element, this time around, is a three-letter weapon that neither side has used before in quite this manner: DVD. Parents’ Right to Know mailed out 2,000 DVDs with two- and four-minute versions of a video where five girls and their stories of seduction, sex, pregnancy, and a clandestine abortion are spliced together into a poignant set of images. The video ends with each girl staring, wide-eyed and helpless into the camera, saying “Protect me…Please.” Parents watch this and see their own children; teenagers see their best friends and relatives. It is much easier to identify with a 13-year-old than with a photo of a fetus, a conclusion that Life on the Ballot was smart to draw.

Last Sunday, in Protestant and Catholic congregations across California, a potential crowd of one million viewers saw this video as they sat straight-backed in their pews. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the California Catholic Conference handed out homilies to be read during the service, urging California’s 11 million Catholics to support Proposition 73. Conference spokeswoman Carol Hogan explained that delivering the homilies does not violate IRS tax code since it’s actually “a restatement of Church teaching.”

Politics and faith have once again escaped definition and at the same time been dragged closer to it. Because of “Protect Me” and the homilies in the Catholic churches, organizers in United Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal and United Church of Christ churches have had to drag politics into the House of God as well. The LA Times reports that California Church Impact, an advocacy organization with more than 4,000 member congregations, has been spreading an anti-proposition gospel. Organization president Reverend Rich Schlosser said that they were planning to mobilize opposition in 300 churches across the state.

Regardless of the unique faith-based grassroots element to this battle, the most surprising element seems to be the lack of inclusion of the affected group themselves: girls under 18. It is understandable that parents would be concerned about their children being seduced by older men with runaway libidos. (Yes on 73 reports in a sidebar that “a study of over 46,000 pregnancies of school-age girls in California found that over two thirds were impregnated by adult men whose mean age was 22.6 years.”) It is also understandable that more conservative groups would want to restrict abortion any way they can in one of the most historically pro-choice states, even if it means a 48-hour period to counsel their kids out of it.

But the problem is actually not faith-based, but lack-of-faith based: We don’t trust our kids to make the right decisions. Has either side bothered to consult with kids, really ask them how they feel about the issue? Planned Parenthood worries about the increase in back-alley procedures if the proposition passes; Yes on 73 yearns for a restoration of parents’ rights and good family values.

The San Francisco Chronicle, one of the only papers that has responsibly covered the issue, interviewed teens about the amendment. “I wish I could vote so bad,” says a 16-year-old. She has a teenage cousin — a model and basketball player — who wants to have an abortion but whose mother is forcing her to keep the baby.

Is that what Proposition 73 is really about? Ask the girls, they’ll tell you. Speak their language. Would most tell you they prefer more information about safe sex and body image to a law that chips away at their personal freedoms? Last month The Guttmacher Institute published a report on parental involvement and reproductive health. In data spanning nearly 30 years, they found no “persuasive evidence that laws mandating parental involvement improve family communication or relationships, discourage teens from having sex or lead pregnant teens to choose childbirth over abortion.” In fact, they found that mandatory parental involvement may lead teens to choose risky, unsafe behavior rather than tell their parents.

If faith is what’s at stake here, then we need a different form of it, the kind where we actually believe in and empower our children, instead of praying for their safety and salvation with a 48-hour time slot.

Marissa Kantor is a writer living in New York City.