ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In more than a dozen states, teenagers who get pregnant cannot make their own medical decisions. The laws in those states require them to get a parent's permission, and that can pose significant problems. Esther Honig of member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, reports on an effort there to change the law.
ESTHER HONIG, BYLINE: Imagine you're a pregnant teen. Maybe some people tell you you're too young to be a mother, but you want to keep this baby. Then when you go into labor, someone else gets to make critical decisions about how you'll give birth. That's what happened to Shani Rucker, who was just 15 when she found out she was pregnant.
SHANI RUCKER: And I was scared because I thought other people will look at me different because I was a freshman in high school, and I was pregnant.
HONIG: At first she worried her mother wouldn't support her.
RUCKER: I really thought she was going to put me out of the house, but she didn't. She stuck with me.
HONIG: Her mom helped her all through the pregnancy. And when she went into labor, she was right there with her in the delivery room.
RUCKER: Only me and my mom went back there. And I was like, I need some pain medicine. I need pain medicine. It was like, OK, we're going to get you some. My mom said, no.
HONIG: And her mom's decision was the final one. In Ohio, pregnant minors cannot consent to anything outside of emergency care. So Rucker's mom, who was concerned about the risks associated with the epidural, decided what pain meds her daughter would receive. Obstetrician Michael Cackovic faces this issue at his hospital in Columbus and struggles with it. He's seen many mothers intentionally deny their young daughters an epidural as a sort of punishment for getting pregnant. When that happens, he tries to talk them out of it.
MICHAEL CACKOVIC: To take the mom aside and, you know, say that this isn't some life lesson here. This is basically pain, and there's really no reason for somebody to go through pain.
HONIG: Dr. Cackovic says runaway and homeless teens face additional hurdles. Without their parents' permission, they cannot receive so-called elective treatments, including some prenatal care and an epidural.
CACKOVIC: It's extremely frustrating. First of all, from a labor and delivery standpoint, you don't like to see anybody uncomfortable.
HONIG: Ohio legislators are about to consider a law that would allow minors to determine their own care during pregnancy. Colorado and North Dakota passed similar laws in recent years. Abigail English is a legal advocate who studies minor consent laws. She says most states do allow pregnant teens to consent to their own care. And one by one, it seems holdout states are considering changing.
ABIGAIL ENGLISH: It certainly could be that the issue, you know, was not brought to the attention of lawmakers until recently.
HONIG: Delivery room doctors and nurses are often the ones pushing for that change. They say without a minor consent law, pregnant teens are denied basic rights during childbirth. Nurse Maureen Sweeney worked with countless teen moms over the years at a Cleveland area hospital.
MAUREEN SWEENEY: So it's already, you know, this at-risk population that's now in a high-risk situation. And now we're putting another barrier into them being able to access that care. So for adolescents, their ability to talk to their parents, say, I'm pregnant, get into the hospital and get that prenatal care that they need is already putting them at a disadvantage. There's so many of them that aren't going.
HONIG: Sweeney says these young patients already struggle with the stigma of teen childbirth. The last thing they need is one more legal hurdle. For NPR News, I'm Esther Honig.
SIEGEL: That story was produced in partnership with Side Effects Public Media. It's a news collaborative that covers public health.
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