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Teenagers’ Abortion Rights Are About to Be Further Eroded in Florida

Auditi Guha

Florida Republicans are pushing legislation that would “disregard young people’s moral agency and decision-making abilities while placing enormous burdens” on teens seeking abortion care, an advocate said.

Kristen Erichsen was 15, pregnant, and “terrified” when she appeared in court for a judge to decide her future. Erichsen knew she couldn’t be a parent and was scared she would become homeless.

“My mom had really terrible health, had an issue with painkillers, and we had been evicted multiple times that year, so there was no way I could talk to her about this. I was also under the impression that if I did, I would be kicked out,” Erichsen, 26, told Rewire.News this week.

That was in 2007. Florida had a parental consent law in place for pregnant minors seeking abortions. Erichsen’s social worker told her she was lucky to get a sympathetic judge to provide a judicial bypass that day. Many others didn’t. But it still wasn’t easy accessing an abortion—from having to get someone to drive her to court 45 minutes away, securing $400 to pay for the abortion, and navigate a sea of anti-choice protesters outside the clinic, the process was agonizing.

In the past six years, Florida legislators have tried to pass more than 50 anti-choice laws. And Republican lawmakers this month have introduced an anti-choice bill that could add more restrictions for teenagers seeking abortion care.

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Approved last week by the House Health Quality subcommittee, HB 1335 would require a physician—at the risk of a felony—to obtain written consent from a parent or legal guardian before performing an abortion on a minor. Exceptions include cases of medical emergency or if the minor obtains a court order bypassing the parental notification and consent requirements. The GOP measure is pending in the state house judiciary committee.

A similar bill introduced March 13 in the state senate, SB 1774 or the “Parental Consent for Abortion Act,” would prohibit a physician from performing an abortion on a minor without obtaining consent from at least one parent or guardian.

Organizations like the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) oppose mandatory parental involvement in abortion decision-making, as do groups supporting teens and adolescents.

Forced parental involvement laws “disregard young people’s moral agency and decision-making abilities while placing enormous burdens” on young people seeking abortion access, wrote Jessica Goldberg, manager of attorney and pro bono programs at If/When/How, a national network of law students and legal professionals working for reproductive justice.

More than 50 organizations and advocates, including the National Women’s Law Center, Emergency Medical Assistance, and Equality Florida, have co-signed a Planned Parenthood letter urging the Florida legislature not to pass these bills.

“There is nothing more important than keeping our young people healthy and safe, but as the medical community has made abundantly clear, this bill would do just the opposite,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “Most young people seek the counsel of a trusted parent or guardian without the government interfering and mandating it. And you can be sure those who don’t [tell a parent or guardian] have very good reasons.”

While several states have parental involvement requirements for minors considering abortion care, only five other states have both parental involvement and consent requirements—Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

“Parental consent requirements are just another way that abortion opponents try to limit access to services. Young people know how to make decisions about their own health care including abortion,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at Guttmacher. “Laws that require parent involvement only serve to deny and delay access, not improve family communication. The judicial bypass process is also well-documented as causing stress and trauma and is difficult to navigate. What young people do need is care that allows them to make the best decision for their lives and future and from individuals that they trust.”

In effect for more than five years, Oklahoma’s notification and consent laws require physicians to send notification letters to parents, telling them of the intent to abort, and for minors (unless emancipated or married) to get written consent via a state-mandated form, or waive that via a judicial bypass, Tamya Cox-Touré, regional director of public policy and organizing at Planned Parenthood Great Plains, told Rewire.News. These policies have created obstacles for minors and have significantly decreased the number of judicial bypasses granted in recent years, she said.

“We already had consent laws, but this notification really created an additional barrier,” she said. “It is already hard for minors to navigate a judicial bypass in Oklahoma—we don’t make it easy at all. Navigating the judicial system is hard for anyone but to ask a minor to do that is even worse.”

Providers encourage parental involvement but recognize there could be problems like parents being absent, she said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), that supports the protection of rights of adolescents to confidential care when considering abortion, stated in a 2017 article that “legislation mandating parental involvement does not achieve the intended benefit of promoting family communication, and it increases the risk of harm to the adolescent by delaying access to appropriate medical care.”

The organization cited studies indicating that most minors involve a parent in the decision, even when it is not required by law. In states that don’t have parent involvement laws, 34 percent to 91 percent of minors told their parents about their plan to have seek abortion care. A survey of 1,519 unmarried pregnant minors in states where parental involvement isn’t mandatory found that 61 percent told one or both parents about their decision to have an abortion.

Minors strongly opposed to informing parents often have good reasons to fear the outcome which could range from violence to rejection and homelessness, echoing Erichsen’s experience. 

Now a fourth-year graduate student pursuing a PhD in sociology at Florida State University, she finds it “ridiculous and hypocritical” that “the party that is supposedly against government intrusion is trying to mandate the way parents should communicate with their children, and I think it’s very ignorant of the experience that women and teens face. People who have good relations with their parents would tell them, and if they aren’t, there’s probably a good reason.”

Since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, anti-choice groups have aimed laws at both the state and federal levels to restrict access. Forced parental involvement laws are part of that framework in Republican-majority legislatures like the one in Florida.

The Florida Supreme Court has struck down parental consent laws—once in 1989 and again in 2003stating that the anti-choice measures violate the state’s constitutional right to privacy and a minor’s right to abortion care. In 2004, voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow for parental notification laws, essentially overruling the 2003 decision. Lawmakers wasted no time passing a law requiring parental notification 48 hours prior to a minor’s abortion; one that still holds, Planned Parenthood advocates pointed out.

Erichsen said lawmakers’ arguments make no sense. “I keep hearing Republican legislators say that teens aren’t mature enough to make the decision on their own,” she said. “I think that’s just so ignorant. If teens aren’t mature enough to make that decision on their own, how are they mature enough to be parents or mature enough to navigate the legal system by themselves?

She discussed her abortion with her mother several years later, after her mother recovered from addiction. “She was supporting, accepting and upset that she wasn’t able to be there for me,” Erichsen said.

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