Case Overview, Parents' Right to Know

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over parents' right to know. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.

           Since Republicans took over control of the House of Representatives in 1994, several conservative members of Congress and pro-life advocates have promoted new laws to prevent minors from obtaining abortions unless they had permission from their parents. In 2001 when interviews for this case study were originally conducted, the parental consent issue was raised during deliberations over federal education funding. In the 107th Congress, Representatives Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced the Parents Right to Know amendment to HR 1, the No Child Left Behind Act, which would "require written, prior parental consent before a minor could receive any non-emergency health service in a public school." The Tiahrt/Graham Parents' Right to Know amendment passed the House by unanimous voice vote because advocates on both sides of the abortion debate gave little attention to the issue in that context.
           After the amendment passed, health service and research advocates noticed that the parental consent provision in the House version of the No Child Left Behind Act could have serious unintended consequences. They reacted by forming an informal coalition of pro-choice advocacy organizations, health care providers, and educational and social science research organizations to directly lobby members of the House-Senate conference committee to reject the amendment during negotiations. Championed by Senator Ted Kennedy, the lead Democrat in the conference committee, opponents of the amendment first argued that the language was too far-reaching because it would prevent students from obtaining any type of non-emergency health service-like mental health advice, substance abuse counseling, or reproductive health guidance-in school. They claimed that the school doctor, nurse, or guidance counselor is often the only adult many of these young people can turn to for such attention. Second, educational researchers would need to obtain "informed, written consent" from parents to conduct any kind of human subjects research with students. Requiring prior written consent would prevent educators and researchers from gathering any confidential data, including test scores and information about drug and alcohol abuse behaviors.
           Conservative legislators and pro-life groups also made the issue a priority during conference negotiations and urged the White House to actively support it. Many conservatives argued that President Bush had already conceded too much to moderate Republicans and Democrats in the education bill and pushed for his support as a signal of his commitment to them. Because the education bill was such a high priority for the new president's domestic agenda and the coalition of legislators and groups against it so large, the White House agreed instead to support conservatives' efforts to pass a similar amendment to an appropriations bill. By the end of the 107th Congress, neither the final version of the No Child Left Behind Act nor any appropriations bills signed by the president included such an amendment.