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Parental Notification and Reduced Suicide Levels


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


Much to the dismay of ardent feminists, many states already have on the books so-called parental involvement laws, decrees which require a girl to notify a parent, guardian, or other approved adult or family member before she can obtain an abortion. A new study by Joseph Sabia and Daniel Rees, researchers from San Diego State University and the University of Colorado, Denver, gives further evidence in support of such laws. States that have parental notification laws, they find, also see a drop in the suicide rate of girls ages 15 through 17.

The researchers begin by outlining previous work that demonstrates that states that institute parental involvement laws see a reduction of 15%-20% in the abortion rates of 15- through 17-year-old girls, and also a reduction (though smaller) in their rate of pregnancy. The authors speculate that because research has already demonstrated that early sexual activity, pregnancy, and abortion are linked to depression in girls, an increase in laws that reduce such behavior should have a positive effect on girls’ psychological well-being.

To conduct their study, the researchers use Poisson estimates on state-level data on 15- through 17-year-old female suicides during the years 1987-2003. Controlling for state abortion policies (whether Medicaid was allowed to fund abortions and the existence of a mandatory waiting period), the model indicated that “the adoption of a parental involvement law is associated with a 13% decrease . . . in suicides among 15- through 17-year-old females.” Adding additional controls on various alcohol policies and also demographic characteristics had “very little impact on the magnitude or precision of these estimates.” The researchers also noted that the impact of a parental notification law has the most effect in the year after its enactment, possibly due to media coverage and heightened awareness of the new policy.

In checks for falsification, Sabia and Rees compare the suicide rates for their age group to those of women 18 through 21 years of age, and also 22 through 24 years, to test whether some other factor were driving female suicide rates in the states in question. They find a drop in suicide rates of les than 1% for the first age group, and an increase of 8% for the second, leading them to determine that “if an unobservable were driving the negative relationship between parental involvement laws and suicides among 15- through 17-year-old females,” that unobservable would have to bear little if any impact on women just a few years older. The decrease in suicide rates for the age group they are studying, they believe, is indeed related to the adoption of parental notification laws.

After various other tests for robustness, the researchers conclude that “the adoption of a parental involvement law is associated with an 11%-21% decrease in the number of 15- through 17-year-old females who commit suicide.” No such association exists for males of the same age group. Sabia and Rees note that although these rates may seem large, the actual number of lives saved is quite small. While an 11% decrease in the suicide rate would mean 0.79 fewer suicides per year, a 21% decrease would mean 1.5 fewer per year. The authors write that “ordinary least squares estimates confirm that only a small portion of the within-state variation in suicides among U.S. minors can be attributed to parental involvement laws.”

But although the number of suicides prevented may be small, surely every number is vastly significant to the families and friends of those girls. Furthermore, this study focused solely on the measurable test of suicide rates; it seems reasonable to suggest that if parental notification laws do indeed act as a deterrent upon risky sexual behaviors, such laws save many more girls from severe psychological distress, even if that distress does not lead ultimately to the ending of life.

(Joseph J. Sabia and Daniel I. Rees, “The Effect of Parental Involvement Laws on Youth Suicide,” Economic Inquiry 51.1 [2013]: 620-636.)

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