At what age does a girl get to make her own choices about her body, her health, her future? At 18, when she’s no longer a minor? At 16, the age of consent?
Existing laws are inconsistent, probably due to our abiding discomfort with young women’s sexuality. Our competing modern instincts — to protect vulnerable girls from predators and to empower strong girls to speak for themselves — can muddle matters further.
Take two bills now being considered on Beacon Hill: One would impose a new minimum age of 18 to get married. Currently, a child in Massachusetts can get married at any age, with at least one parent’s permission. The other would let a young woman get an abortion at any age. Currently, she can’t do so before 18, unless she has the permission of a parent or a judge.
If both bills pass as written, they would seem to send conflicting signals on young women’s autonomy: You’re mature enough to choose an abortion, no matter what your parents say, but you are not mature enough to choose marriage, no matter what your parents say.
Some of the same Democrats are championing both bills, and they say there is no contradiction between the two; both would put young women in the driver’s seat of their lives.
“What we’re trying to do is empower people,” said Senator Harriette Chandler, the lead sponsor of both bills in the Senate. “We believe that if given the freedom to make decisions, they will make good, correct decisions for themselves.”
A girl who can’t or won’t talk to her parents about abortion currently has to find her way to court to get a “judicial bypass” — essentially demonstrating to the judge she is mature enough to make the decision on her own. That presents a hurdle to accessing abortion, a constitutionally protected right, sponsors say. Meanwhile, minors can get every other kind of reproductive care on their own, from contraception to a C-section — without their parents’ consent. (They can even get an abortion without parental consent in one rare circumstance: If they already are married.)
As for barring child marriage, Representative Kay Khan, the lead sponsor in the House, believes teenagers often aren’t the ones making the decision — their parents are, such as dictating the teenager marry because of a pregnancy.
“It’s about allowing children to make their own choices,” said Khan, “because sometimes their parents don’t have their interest in mind.”
With no age limit on marriage in Massachusetts, an average of more than 70 minors a year have gotten married since 2000, according to the state Office of the Child Advocate. However, the numbers are on a downward trend, to as few as 12 in 2016.
Under the age of 18, a girl can’t legally enter any other contract but marriage, sponsors of the bill noted. She can’t file for divorce or seek a restraining order, she can’t even rent an apartment or get her own credit card. If she marries an adult — as a majority of these girls do — she is essentially in her husband’s custody.
“Since we don’t have an emancipation statute in Massachusetts, we are leaving these young women in legal limbo,” said Maria Z. Mossaides, the child advocate for the state of Massachusetts, who favors the bill to bar child marriage.
Given all those factors, the idea of ending adolescent marriage doesn’t generate much outrage. But the notion of a girl as young as 14 ending a pregnancy on her own still stirs concern.
Lee Crowley, a Westborough mother who rallied against the abortion bill outside the State House recently, can’t believe legislators would remove parents from a health care decision of such significance.
“In a world where I have to sign a detailed permission slip for high school-aged children to receive a Tylenol or Advil or a Tums or an antibiotic cream from the school nurse,” Crowley said, “it doesn’t make sense to me that the Massachusetts legislators would want a young teenager to be able to make a decision about a serious procedure that could have serious physical or emotional consequences for their child without parental involvement.”
The abortion bill would also seem to contradict other recent changes to state law, made in the name of protecting children. In recent years, lawmakers have raised the legal age limits for smoking (from 18 to 21), using a tanning bed (forbidding anyone under 18), and aging out of the juvenile justice system to face adult criminal proceedings (from 17 to 18).
“We’re moving everything in a different direction, but when it comes to this issue, you want to eliminate any restrictions?” said Jim Lyons, a former legislator and longtime antiabortion activist who now chairs the Massachusetts Republican Party. “It seems to be incongruous to me.”
But seen in another light, perhaps it’s entirely consistent. In the case of both the abortion and marriage bills, lawmakers would be allowing teenagers to remain children longer.
There is no minimum age requirement for pregnancy, of course. And a teenager, already pregnant, can postpone marriage. But she can’t put off her due date.
The question that abortion opponents don’t ask about existing law: If a teenager is not mature enough to end a pregnancy, what makes us think she is mature enough to become a mother?“What She Said” is an occasional column on gender issues. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.