Here's What It's Like to Argue Before a Judge That You Should Be Able to Get an Abortion Without Telling Your Parents

Most states require parents to be notified or provide consent for a minor to have an abortion, with exceptions for youths who fear abuse as a result. A new study offers a glimpse into what it's like to try to secure an exception.
By Francie Diep ,

(Photo: Wutthichai Charoenburi/Wikimedia)

Sandra feared her father would force her out, or worse. The day he discovered she had a boyfriend, she said, "He wanted to kick me out of the house and it was a really, really big conflict, so I couldn't imagine what he would do if I told him, 'You know what? I'm pregnant.'" Vanessa feared humiliation. "My family is very religious, so if they found out, they would just shame me," she said. And Jacqueline worried she wouldn't have a relationship with her father anymore. He had told her that if she ever got pregnant, he would disown her.

All three young women were under 18 and living in Texas at the time they became pregnant and decided to get an abortion. Under state law, they had to get consent from at least one of their parents—or convince a judge either that they were mature enough to make the decision on their own, or that informing a parent wouldn't be in their best interest. Sandra, Vanessa, and Jacqueline all sought what's called a judicial bypass, and they later spoke with a researcher about their experiences with the process. Last week, their stories appeared in a paper that one researcher says is the first to examine teens' experiences with judicial bypasses. Their names are pseudonyms provided by the researchers, who also provided quotes from them.

"The intent of the parental consent law and judicial bypass process is to protect young women and adolescents," says Kate Coleman-Minahan, a nursing professor at the University of Colorado who conducted all of the interviews for the new study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. "Our data shows that the judicial bypass process is actually harmful. It's not protecting them. We found the process is very unpredictable in Texas, and it exposes adolescents to humiliation, shame, stigma, and sometimes trauma."

Thirty-eight states have laws in effect mandating parents or guardians be notified or consent before a minor undergoes an abortion, according to a Planned Parenthood guide. In 37 of those states, a judge can excuse a minor from parental involvement requirements. Previous studies had found that minors had fewer abortions after parental notification laws passed, but none had ever asked girls about trying to get a judicial bypass, Coleman-Minahan says.

For the study, she talked with 20 young women who sought judicial bypasses in Texas in either 2015 or 2016. Those chosen represented a wide geographic swath of the state. All were former clients of Jane's Due Process, a non-profit that provides legal services to pregnant youths and helped University of Colorado researchers find teens to speak with, while protecting the teens' anonymity.

The girls' experiences ranged widely. Some described fairly quick and simple processes taking just a few days. Others had their cases drag on, as judges delayed their hearings. On average, the judicial bypass process delayed the interviewees' abortions by more than two weeks.

Many girls described varied humiliations. One interviewee's guardian ad litem—a person appointed by the court to act in the girl's best interest—made fun of her for "not knowing that condoms were considered birth control." Another's preached at her about how abortions are wrong. Jacqueline's guardian ad litem brought a staffer from an adoption agency to her hearing, breaching the confidentiality of the meeting. Her lawyer had to hustle her out before the staffer could see her.

Judges may ask probing questions about teens' sex and family lives while trying to determine if they're mature enough, or their relationship with their parents poor enough, to merit a bypass. "They felt like they had to talk about things that they had never talked about with anyone else," Coleman-Minahan says. "If they experienced abuse, they were asked to recount that."

All that led to trauma, for some. Many young women cried on the phone with Coleman-Minahan while recounting their experience with the judicial system, even though most had gone through the process more than half a year before. Shaming and stigmatizing teens for their choices isn't good for them, Coleman-Minahan says. Her paper points to research that shows humiliation makes people lose trust in others and that stigma against abortion causes psychological distress in women who have them.

The lawmaker who introduced the latest Texas judicial bypass bill—which tightened the process, making it harder for girls to make their case—said its intent was to "improve the protection of the minor girl and ensure that parental rights are protected," as the Texas Observer reported. But the girls Coleman-Minahan talked with seemed to experience the process as punishment, not protection. "The participants felt like going through this process struck fear in them of never doing anything like this again," Coleman-Minahan says. In fact, some seemed to feel they deserved it: They talked about making sure they did really well in school from now on, so that their abortions weren't in vain.

More than half agreed that teens should have to get either parental consent or a judge's assent to have an abortion—though some thought the age should be lowered, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to have abortions without interference. All of the interviewees were 16 or 17 at the time of their judicial bypass hearings. They were mature enough to make this decision for themselves, they said, but what if others weren't?

"Some had internalized false beliefs that abortion is physically and emotionally dangerous and 'wrong' even though they articulated that it was the best choice for them," Coleman-Minahan writes in an email. "This is similar to women who are beaten and feel they deserve to be hit. The longer and more deeply you're embedded in a system that tells you something is correct, the more you affirm its correctness, even if you experience its injustice or harmfulness."

Coleman-Minahan wants to see laws that allow teens "to decide who they want to involve in their pregnancy decisions." In judicial bypass hearings, she wants policies that ensure judges and guardians ad litem don't interject their own opinions about abortion into the procedure.

Most of her interviewees eventually received their bypasses and obtained abortions. One chose not to have an abortion after getting her bypass. But three girls were denied bypasses by their judges. One of those was Jacqueline.

Seventeen at the time of her hearing, Jacqueline tried to convince the judge that she was mature, mentioning that she had landed a prestigious internship while in high school, played on the school soccer team, cared for her younger siblings, and dreamed of going to Texas A&M University to study engineering. At her judge's request, she described how she understood an abortion would be performed and what instruments would be used in the procedure. But Jacqueline felt her judge listened to her guardian ad litem, who opposed abortion, more than she listened to her.

She recalled telling her judge and guardian ad litem: "You guys keep telling me I'm not mature enough to make this decision and I don't know what I'm getting myself into, yet if I'm not mature enough to make a decision like this, how am I mature enough to even have a baby and to go through the emotional and physical changes of having a kid?"

She eventually obtained an abortion out of state. Despite her struggles with her guardian and judge, she, too, came to process her experience as deserved. "Jacqueline said she learned from her mistakes," Coleman-Minahan says, "and that this process was like a slap to get her together."

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