Schools are helping teenage girls keep abortions secret from their parents. Imogen Neale reports.
A MOTHER is angry her 16-year-old daughter had a secret abortion arranged by a school counsellor.
Helen, not her real name, found out about the termination four days after it had happened. "I was horrified. Horrified that she'd had to go through that on her own, and horrified her friends and counsellors had felt that she shouldn't talk to us," she said.
She had suspected something was wrong, but her daughter insisted her tears were over everyday teenage dramas.
But Helen confronted her daughter's friends, who said the counsellor had taken the girl for a scan and to doctors. "I didn't know that they could do that."
Helen said teachers could discuss how a student was doing in school or phone parents when their child misbehaved, but would then keep life-changing situations such as abortions secret.
Her daughter had since told her the counsellor "wasn't very forthcoming" with advice. The counsellor did ask the girl if she had talked to her parents, but never pursued it.
Helen said follow-up counselling for her daughter was "nonexistent". She concedes patient confidentiality is a tricky issue and said her child feared she'd be disowned. "She's come to realise that's not the case. But if you're responsible for them, surely you should be told."
Helen has been too upset to approach the school. "Afterwards I was too wild, and I probably still am."
Another mother who was worried for her 15-year-old daughter "hit a brick wall" when she approached the school, and eventually discovered it was a friend of her daughter's who had undergone an abortion. "But I went through the horror of knowing that under the legislation, they did not need to say anything to me."
One teacher told the Sunday Star-Times she had seen parents become "absolutely livid" after finding out they had been kept out of abortion decisions.
She knew of a Year 13 student who had had two abortions – one with her parents' knowledge, and one without.
She said the law catered for the "lowest common denominator" – pregnancy as a result of incest or rape, but girls sometimes did not want to tell their parents for fear they would react badly or demand prosecutions for statutory rape if their daughters were under 16.
Christchurch lawyer Kathryn Dalziel, who wrote Privacy In Schools: A guide to the Privacy Act for principals, teachers and boards of trustees, said students who saw counsellors were promised confidentiality, and the service was bound by the Health Privacy Code.
"When it comes to contraception and abortion, they [counsellors] would need the consent of the person before they could share information with a parent or the school," she said.
"If that protection disappeared, you can pretty well guarantee the young person won't tell the counsellor a thing – particularly the thing you need them to talk about."
And a counsellor who broke the rules and told a parent without the child's consent could be struck off.
Dalziel said she would be devastated if any of her daughters had an abortion without her support. "But knowing it is something that could happen, my whole thing about raising my children is to know how to listen and learn and get information."
Guidance counsellor Helen Bissett said the situation could be an "ethical nightmare", and a number of schools now had wellness centres so girls could see a nurse, not a counsellor.
Not knowing how a parent would react was one of the main reasons girls wanted to hide the truth, she said.
"In the heat of the moment, parents can say some pretty rough stuff but once they've got through that, they're often really supportive."
She talked to students "long and hard" about getting a family member involved. Girls had to see a doctor for tests, scans and see two certifying consultants before they could have an abortion. The consultants explained the health risks and the girl had to sign a form saying she understood and consented.
"I don't organise any and I never want to," Bissett said. "I go with them to the doctor, but I won't go to a termination."
THE NUMBERS, AND THE LAW
Statistics New Zealand figures show that 3950 11- to 19-year-olds had induced abortions in 2009. Of those, 79 were aged between 11 and 14. Under section 38 of the Care of Children Act 2004, a female of any age can consent to an abortion. In 2004, then opposition MP Judith Collins put forward an amendment to prevent girls under 16 from having an abortion without their parents' knowledge. The amendment was voted down. Parents are legally responsible for their offspring until the children turn 18 or marry, enter into a civil union, or a de facto relationship with their parents' permission.
'THEY LOOKED AT ME LIKE I WAS TOO YOUNG'
ABORTION WAS never an option when 14-year-old Rayelene Mou suspected she was pregnant and plucked up the courage to tell her mother.
"I've always been close to my mum. I can talk to her about anything."
She says she never considered having an abortion and once the pregnancy was confirmed, adoption was also ruled out.
Her daughter, Kiarnah Whaiapu-Mou, is now two, and Rayelene is a student at James Cook High School's Taonga Teen Parent Unit in the South Auckland suburb of Clendon.
She says despite losing some friends, she has no regrets about being a teenage mother and enjoys being able to take part in her daughter's development.
"When I first let them know I was pregnant, they looked at me like I was lying, so that was kind of hard," she said. "They looked at me like I was too young, I can't be pregnant."
Rayelene thought having a baby would see her stuck at home, but the school counsellor put her on to the unit and now, while Kiarnah is in daycare, Rayelene is in the building next door studying towards NCEA level three.
"I want go to the police force. I want to gain my NCEA level three," she says. "And I want to put Kiarnah into a Maori bilingual school."
- Sunday Star Times