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Why we must keep judicial bypass as a safety net for pregnant teens

April 10, 2015

Recently a young woman, Mary*, called the Jane’s Due Process hotline. She sounded timid and scared and her voice wavered as she described her situation. At 16, she was pregnant and wanted to know how she could get an abortion. Her home life is anything but safe and healthy—she told us about growing up exposed to family violence, how her parents struggled to pay the bills and how a number of her family members have dealt with mental and physical health challenges. She was still living at home, but her situation was precarious at best.

She feared that her parents would beat her and throw her out of the house if they found out about her pregnancy. She knew that would happen because that’s exactly what they did to her older sister when she told them she was pregnant as a teenager. Mary had seen how her sister had struggled and the challenges she faced being homeless, abused and trying to raise a baby. Mary knew it wasn’t the right time for her to become a parent and she also knew that telling her parents about her desire to have an abortion would put her in physical danger.

In Texas, anyone under 18 who needs an abortion must get the consent of a parent or, if involving a parent is not possible, they must get a judge’s order, called a “judicial bypass.” For Mary to get safe, legal abortion care, she would have to overcome a number of hurdles beyond the parental consent law. In 2013, the Texas Legislature decimated access to safe and legal abortion when they forced HB 2 through in a special session. Since the bill went into effect, the number of clinics open in Texas has dwindled to just a handful in major cities. This legislative session, lawmakers are targeting abused and neglected teens like Mary, trying to destroy the safety net that is the judicial bypass.

Sound inhumane? It is.

Anti-choice lawmakers have filed six bills that would dismantle or alter the judicial bypass process.

For those teens who cannot notify a parent about their abortion decision because of abuse or neglect, judicial bypass not only provides a legal option to assist teens in accessing care, but also brings supportive adults into the picture: the judge, the guardian and, hopefully, an attorney.

For teens like Mary, judicial bypass is an absolute necessity to protect them from harm.

It is rare for a teen to not involve a parent in her decision whether or not to become a parent. In 2010, 2,720 minors in Texas chose to have abortions and less than ten percent of those young women obtained a judicial bypass. The small number of teens who seek judicial bypass are not doing so out of frivolity or trivial concerns; they are not concerned about confiscated cell phones or modified curfews. They are young women like Mary, facing difficult and often unsafe circumstances, doing their best to keep afloat.

When the adults in a young woman’s life have failed or abandoned her, the bypass process serves as a safety net, ensuring the involvement, support and guidance of stable adult figures. It absolutely goes against the best interests of these vulnerable teens to create barriers to accessing this safeguard.

After Jane’s Due Process hotline staff discussed all of Mary’s options with her, we found an attorney to help her. Then Mary had a long conversation with the attorney about her situation. She also met with a guardian ad litem, a person appointed by the court to interview Mary and report to the court about whether or not an abortion would be in her best interest.

After these appointments, Mary went to court with her attorney to speak to the judge, who after hearing her testimony, signed a court order allowing her to get an abortion without parental consent. Then she was able to go back to the clinic for her procedure.

Like anyone who has been to court knows, the process is not the easiest or the fastest, but Jane’s Due Process works hard to alleviate some of the fear and confusion surrounding the courthouse for these vulnerable teenagers. But beyond that, the judicial bypass process and Jane’s Due Process can bring so much more to an abused teenager’s life. Often the organization’s staff and volunteers or the court-appointed guardians will help connect their clients to other resources, like social workers, housing, clothing, food and trauma counseling. For many of these young people, this is their first point of contact with services that can help change the course of their lives.

The new legislation proposes a multitude of restrictions that would make judicial bypass more onerous for applicants. One of the harmful provisions in a couple of these bills, HB 723 (King, Phil R-Weatherford) and  HB 2531 (Krause, R-Parker), would require that a minor seeking a judicial bypass prove to the judge that she is mature and well-informed enough to make her own pregnancy decision and that it is not in her best interests for her parent to be notified of her decision to have an abortion and that notifying her parent could lead to sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. As current law stands, a minor must only prove one of these grounds. And, depending on the circumstances, it is often impossible to prove all three.

Mary is a teenager with an unthinkably terrible home life, but that would not be enough for her to get an abortion if either of these bills pass. Unfortunately, factors like language barriers (English is not Mary’s first language), cultural differences, level of education and communication can contribute to whether or not a judge believes a teenage is “mature.”

Reps. King and Krause are in no position to second-guess the abuse in Mary’s home. They don’t live her life. Neither they nor any other lawmaker should make these decisions for her or put her at risk, but that is exactly what HB 723 and HB 2531 would do.

Mary came from a violent home, but not all Jane’s Due Process clients are in the same situation – yet another reason why lawmakers shouldn’t have the power to determine what happens to these young people.

Jade* is a very mature 17 year-old who started college early and was living on her own, working two jobs and taking night classes. Her parents are not abusive, but are absent from her life. Her mother died years ago and her father is in prison, which makes it impossible for her to obtain the written parental consent current state law requires. If HB 2531 were to pass, Jade would have to prove that parental involvement could lead to abuse in order to get a bypass—which would be impossible given her situation.

HB 723 and HB 2531 would deny Jade access to abortion until she turns 18—effectively forcing her to continue her pregnancy.

By implementing barriers to accessing judicial bypass, the Texas Legislature is putting an already-vulnerable population in grave danger. The current safety net—the judicial bypass process—works to keep teens safe and looks out for their best interests.

It’s not too late to stop these bills from passing! Let your representative know you oppose these bills and visit janesdueprocess.org for more information about pregnant teenager’s legal rights.

* Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.