Just a few days before her 15th birthday, the 14-year-old appeared in front of a Florida court and asked for permission to get an abortion.
This girl said that her mother lived in Guatemala and that she had lost touch with her father after he moved away—making it likely impossible for her to get their permission to get an abortion, which minors are required to do under Florida law.
Two courts denied the girl’s request for the abortion, which she made back in 2020. Advocates don’t know whether she ended up giving birth and, ultimately, if she became a child raising a child.
The girl lived with a pair of adults and her 17-year-old boyfriend, who supported her, though she was still going to school. She wanted an abortion, she told the court, “because I don’t have any other choice.”
A report from Human Rights Watch, released Thursday, found that this unnamed 14-year-old is far from the only young girl to have been denied an abortion by a Florida court over the last 15 years. In Florida, as in several other states, if a minor wants to get an abortion without alerting their parents, they have to undergo an arduous process known as a “judicial bypass,” where they go to a court and ask for a judge’s permission to get the procedure.
Florida makes no exceptions for children who may have gotten pregnant through rape or incest, including by a parent. If a child in the foster care system wants an abortion, they have no choice but to pursue a judicial bypass, because they legally have no guardian who can sign off on their abortion.
In total, over the last 15 years, Florida courts have told at least 342 minors that they cannot legally get abortions without parental permission. According to their report, one girl was apparently deemed too shy to be mature enough for an abortion, while another seemed too curt. Yet another girl was already a single mom who worked full time, which should have meant that she didn’t need a court’s permission to get an abortion. However, neither her attorney nor the judge appeared to know that, and her request for an abortion was denied, by two different counts. (The mom was ultimately able to get an abortion.)
Judges denied the 14-year-old’s request for an abortion in 2020 because there were questions about the location of her mother and her credibility, according to court documents reviewed by VICE News. They felt that the girl hadn’t demonstrated that she was sufficiently mature or understood abortions well enough. (American adults are infamously ill-informed about abortion, even after the downfall of Roe. In a recent poll conducted by Ipsos and NPR, at least a third of Americans could not answer basic questions about abortion.) Evidently, they did not have the same concerns about whether she was mature enough to become a parent.
“Although she made decent grades in school, her answers to the questioning of counsel and the trial court were vague, and our review of her testimony supports the trial court’s finding that she was unable to articulate her understanding of the procedure,” an appeals court judge wrote. “Furthermore, there is nothing in the record to refute the trial court’s assessment of her demeanor as ‘present[ing] as a very young, immature woman.’”
“I’m always heartbroken to see these statistics because we don’t know what happens after a young person is denied and denied again on appeal,” said Annie Filkowski, policy and political director of Planned Parenthood of South, East, and North Florida. “We just simply don’t. And that sort of question mark there is pretty heartbreaking.”
Another Florida girl was initially denied an abortion in part because of her low GPA and because she doesn’t care for any younger siblings. An appeals court later reversed that denial, pointing out that the lower-court judge may have misunderstood how her GPA worked and, moreover, that the girl didn’t have any younger siblings in the first place.
“There’s a lot of passive aggressive statements,” said Kristen Flynn, an attorney who has represented minors in judicial bypass cases. “One judge told a child that, ‘Just because I’m signing this doesn’t mean that you have to do it.’”
Judges often ask minors deeply personal questions, which can trip minors up if they’re not adequately prepared by an attorney, Flynn said. “If it’s a child that’s been abused and/or raped, then you’re in a situation where they have to talk about the abuse. They have to be retraumatized and basically tell their story again.”
Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro, executive director of the reproductive justice-supporting Florida Access Network, underwent a judicial bypass in Florida in 2009, when she was 17 years old. (At the time, Florida required that minors tell a parent that they wanted an abortion, not get their parent’s consent.) When Piñeiro met with the judge, she had already secured the help of a lawyer, so she brought her resume, a transcript, an essay, and legal documentation of the abuse she had survived at her home.
“It was an unnecessary hurdle that only created more stress, only forced me to remain pregnant longer, only made me consider all the different ways to end my own pregnancy if they said no,” she said, adding that the judicial bypass process took three weeks. “The state’s intention in having these laws existing around parental involvement, parental consent are only to force young people to remain pregnant against their will as punishment for getting pregnant in the first place.”
In 2019, Piñeiro authored a study with the legal advocacy group If/When/How that studied Florida counties’ preparedness to help minors navigate the judicial bypass process. She found that more than half of the counties were unprepared; court personnel frequently said that they had never heard of judicial bypasses.
Florida, which now has a 15-week abortion ban on the books, is far from the only state that requires minors either get a judicial bypass or tell their parents if they want an abortion. It’s one of six states that mandate minors who want abortions to both tell at least one parent and get their consent before the procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion restrictions. Ten states require that the minor at least notify one parent of the abortion, while 20 states require that a minor obtain the consent of at least one parent.
There are signs that breaking these laws, in a post-Roe v. Wade United States, is only going to become more dangerous. On Monday, Idaho lawmakers introduced a bill that would charge people with human trafficking if they help them get abortions without their parents’ permission. It would be illegal to even help minors go out of state for abortions—a clear attempt to cut off interstate travel for abortion, or as anti-abortion activists call it, “abortion tourism.”
“Young people are used as political fodder to test how laws will look,” Piñeiro said.
To be sure, hundreds of Florida minors have been able to secure abortions through judicial bypasses, according to the Human Rights Watch report. However, researchers found that the share of young people who had their requests for abortions denied increased in 2020 and 2021, after Florida passed a bill to tighten its rules around judicial bypasses. In 2020, more than 13 percent of all judicial bypass requests were denied, quadruple the number of denials in 2007.
Relatively few petitions are ever appealed. Human Rights Watch was only able to unearth nine appealed petitions from between 2020 and 2022.
Researchers also discovered that minors’ success seemed to depend heavily on where they went to court. In 2021, seven of Florida’s 67 counties received 65 percent of all petitions for judicial bypasses. Four of those seven counties didn’t deny a single petition, while Palm Beach County denied one in 10 petitions and Broward denied one in 16.
But Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, denied more than half of all petitions in 2021. That’s even more than in 2020, when Hillsborough County denied nearly 40 percent of all petitions.
“Your zip code should not determine whether or not you have access to abortion. So we see some counties that don’t deny anyone and then you look at Hillsborough, and they have a 50-percent denial rate,” said Filkowski. “It makes you wonder, are young people in Hillsborough overall insufficiently mature or do we have judges weaponizing their power in these situations?”
In Filkowski’s view, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to be rewarding people for being tough on abortion. After Judge Jared E. Smith denied a girl’s judicial bypass petition partly over her GPA, Smith lost a re-election campaign. Afterward, however, DeSantis appointed him to a state appeals court.
Filkowski expects to see more abortion restrictions introduced in Florida this year. She also sees a line between abortion rights for minors and the ongoing attacks on LGBTQ youth in Florida.
“We see the weaponization of ‘parents’ rights’ to strip young people’s bodily autonomy,” she said. “We’re really up against it here. When you look at what we [are] doing for young people, the governor has twice-vetoed bipartisan-supported for funding of birth control, he’s attacking sexual health education, banning abortion, and burning the candle at both ends here.”
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