Moral responsibility of teenagers

by Jay Johansen

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The Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Roper vs Simmons, that it is "unconstitutional" to execute someone for a murder committed when he was under 18. Among the reasons they gave for this decision was testimony presented before the court by the American Psychological Association, which, they said, showed that "persons under 18 lack the ability to take moral responsibility for their decisions". The APA explained that people under 18 just don't have sufficient maturity to make moral decisions responsibly.

What does this have to do with abortion? Well, nothing, except ... just a few years before, in the case of Hodgson v Minnesota, the Supreme Court was considering a state law that required that the parents of a girl under 18 must be notified before an abortion could be performed on her. The American Psychological Association presented evidence before the court which, they said, showed "a rich body of evidence" that persons under 18 are mature enough to make difficult moral decisions, and so there is absolutely no point in trying to involve their parents in such decisions.

So are people under 18 mature enough to make moral decisions or not? According to the APA, a question that the vast majority of the population of the world would consider a no-brainer -- whether or not it is morally acceptable to beat an old lady to death for kicks was the actual question in the Roper case -- is just too difficult for a 17 year old. It is totally unreasonable to expect a 17 year old to understand that there might be something wrong with such actions. But a question which our society regards as highly debatable -- whether it is acceptable to abort an unborn child -- this is a question that a scared, stressed 17 year old is fully capable of making. Indeed, to even suggest that perhaps she should discuss the matter with her parents is an assault on her rights.

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Posted 26 Jun 2005.

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