By Lara Brooks
Lara S. Brooks is a Chicago-based youth worker fighting for transformative justice, queer and trans youth spaces, a never-ending supply of harm reduction options, and holistic health access for youth experiencing homelessness. Brooks works with the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health as a youth rights advocate.
During the first week of April 2014, youth leaders rallied at the Illinois state capitol to advocate for their reproductive rights and generate awareness about the dangers of the Parental Notification of Abortion Law (PNA). The Illinois PNA law requires that any person under 18 years of age seeking access to abortion services must have an adult family member (someone who is a parent, legal guardian, grandparent, or step-parent who lives with the young person) notified at least 48 hours before a medical provider can perform the abortion. There are similar laws in 38 states around the US.
As a long-time youth worker, sexual assault counselor, and former director of a youth center, I know that young people, navigating complex realities and complicated systems, are making informed and thoughtful decisions about their bodies—something that the very premise of PNA erases altogether. As an advocate and youth ally, I resist that erasure. At the recent youth rally in Springfield, I witnessed how powerful the voices and stories of youth can be when lifted up as part of policy conversations around the reproductive rights of youth.
The dangers of PNA, in combination with existing barriers to abortion access, disproportionately impacts youth who are in danger of or currently experiencing homelessness, housing instability, violence, and neglect. Based on my experiences working with young people, I know the trauma, danger, and crisis induced by PNA directly exacerbates violence, neglect, and homelessness. For already unstably housed young people, parental notification of abortion laws are just as dangerous as laws in other states that require written consent.
Most significantly, PNA does nothing to address the systemic or structural roots of this critical question: What are the lived realities of many young people in Illinois that make it unsafe to inform PNA’s list of approved adults and guardians in the first place?
I believe responding to the harms of PNA demands an intersectional, holistic response that includes all of us—young people, families, communities, youth workers, adult allies, healthcare providers, health educators, parents, and organizers. Despite barriers to comprehensive sexual health information and accessible healthcare, young people create powerful relationships within their communities, grow life-saving chosen families, and build critical, supportive and trusting relationships with extended family members, educators, youth workers, counselors, and other caring adults. Young people are actively striving to reduce their isolation in ways that are inspiring. As a youth worker, I witness this type of resilience every day.
The Reproductive Justice Movement that I want to be a part of builds its base by connecting and centering the real, lived experiences of young people. It connects to and learns from Environmental, Disability, Healing, and Health Justice Movements. It intersects with Racial, Queer and Trans* (transgender, gender variant, gender non-conforming, and gender questioning), Transformative Justice, and Economic Justice Movements. No one is disposable and solutions support both immediate and long-term goals and needs. For example, how are we holistically connecting struggles for reproductive health access with Trans* health access? How does Reproductive Justice intersect with state violence, policing, and discrimination? Which clients and patients are the most disposable in our current healthcare systems? How does a sex- and body-positive, gender-affirming, and trauma-informed health care system benefit all of us?
Structural and intersectional responses to reduce the harms of PNA, in this moment, include all of us. Reproductive Justice pushes me to critically question and complicate definitions of self-determination, choice, and consent. And, at the same time, Reproductive Justice implores us to transform the conditions which may lead to increased violence for a young person seeking reproductive health options and abortion access.
I know we can do better and show up for young people by:
- Complicating narratives about consent and self-determination by creating spaces that allow young people to share their real lives in their own words.
- Listening to, trusting, and believing young people.
- Acknowledging that young people may be taking care of and supporting (emotionally, financially) the same family members that they are forced to inform when seeking abortion access.
- Increasing access to safe, gender-affirming, sex-positive, trauma-informed, and body-positive healthcare and health education.
- Creating alternative health-focused projects, organizations, and clinics with values in relationship building and harm reduction. Many of us feel a sense of disposability as staff, patients, and/or clients within health-focused organizations, medical institutions, and clinics. Let us continue to build models that meet our needs and fight for our whole lives.
- Learning about legacies and histories of sexual and reproductive health resiliency.
- Educating our communities about ACLU’s Judicial Bypass Coordination Project, a strategy for reducing the harms of PNA right now.
- Centering the health priorities of Queer and Trans* young people of color, youth with disabilities, and undocumented youth in our reproductive justice and health access efforts.
- Taking part in efforts to end youth incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.
- Recognizing that laws like the PNA are an extension of the carceral state, one that values punishment-based systems and incarceration to “solve” community “problems” instead of restorative justice and community accountability practices. PNA may serve as a tool to discriminately punish young people most impacted by economic and housing injustices.
- Incorporating Healing and Disability Justice—and the ways our bodies have experienced intersecting forms of violence (institutional, state, individual, generational, and family violence) into our conversations, workshops, and writings about sexual health, abortion, intimacy, disabilities, youth incarceration, and more.
- Increasing opportunities for young people to access basic needs, including safer sex supplies, in accessible, non-judgmental spaces.
- Providing employment, educational, and authentic leadership development opportunities to young people—particularly young people of color, youth impacted by state systems like juvenile detention, foster care, and group homes, youth with disabilities, undocumented youth, and LGBTQ young people.
The Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, ACLU of Illinois, and Chicago Abortion Fund are raising awareness with the support of Advocates for Youth in a campaign called #StopPNA. Follow the #StopPNA campaign on Twitter & Instagram where you can join in with your voice and stories.