Julia Quinn, LSRJ 15-16 Federal Fellow, National Health Law Program
Imagine you are a pregnant teenager and, upon telling your father, he threatens to “beat the baby” out of you. Or maybe you don’t tell your parents about your pregnancy because you saw how they disowned your older sister when she became pregnant. Or you suffer other emotional and physical abuse, and divulging your pregnancy would lead to more abuse, or worse.
Chances are, however, your state law requires pregnant teens to either notify their parents or obtain their consent to have an abortion. And California voters will soon decide whether to join the list. That’s because seven versions of a new parental notification initiative have been filed with the state, and at least one may be on the ballot in November 2016. The proposed initiatives would prohibit all abortions for teenagers under age 18 or under age 16 without parental notification. Some include a mandatory 48 hour waiting period, restrictions on who can provide abortions for minors, and make physicians vulnerable to lawsuits.
In what would be a terrible development for pregnant teens, California could become the 39th state requiring some parental involvement in a minor’s decision to have an abortion. The only workaround for teens who are in danger of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; whose parents are incarcerated, deceased, or have been deported; or otherwise cannot notify their parents is called a “judicial bypass.” The teen seeking an abortion has to obtain a court order (hence the term “judicial bypass”) which is a confidential process that permits a minor to obtain an order from a judge to have an abortion without notifying her parents.
Procuring judicial permission can be traumatizing, if not impossible, for many teens, both because of logistical nightmares and judges who abuse the process. There are well-documented incidents in which a judge has appointed counsel for the fetus, lectured teens that abortion is murder, and even offered a teen $2000 not to have an abortion. To make matters worse, some states have begun to make the process even more onerous. For example, a new Texas law places increased burdens on minors by requiring, in nearly all circumstances, that a minor must file her application in her home county, a particularly daunting prospect for teens from extremely conservative and close-knit communities. The new law also allows judges up to five business days to render a decision. If the judge does not rule within five business days, the application is presumed denied. Previously, the application was automatically granted if the judge did not act within the allotted timeframe.
These additional restrictions complicate the already Sisyphean task of accessing abortion care in many states. In addition to strong opposition from physicians—both the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics are opposed to mandatory parental notification—these laws endanger, shame, and punish pregnant teens. Despite the patronizing rhetoric of protecting teens from themselves, parental notification laws and “reforms” to the judicial bypass process have the singular purpose of denying young people access to abortion. While this harms all pregnant teenagers, the burdens of both parental notification and judicial bypass disproportionately fall upon people of color and low-income individuals. According to Jane’s Due Process, a Texas organization with a 24-hour hotline and free legal representation for pregnant teens seeking judicial bypass, nearly twenty percent of their callers are de facto orphans, as their parents have been deported, are not in the country, or are incarcerated. This illustrates the intersections of reproductive health care, our nation’s broken immigration system, and a criminal justice system that oppresses people of color.
Each parental notification law or judicial bypass limitation burdens thousands of young people each year. So while most news coverage in the next year will focus on the 2016 presidential election, don’t forget to monitor your state and local races and their implications for reproductive health, rights, and justice. The fate of countless teenagers depends on it.