Why I help teenagers get secret abortions
- Published: 14 August 2010
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As women’s reproductive rights are threatened across the globe, with a young couple about to prosecuted in Australia for accessing the RU486 abortion pill, American attorney A.J. Zachary reflects on why she helps young women to get abortions.
I spent my first year as a law student helping teenagers get abortions. I worked the phones at a small non-profit called Jane's Due Process, which as far as I know, is the only organization in the US that helps teens navigate the judicial bypass process to get abortions without parental consent or notification.
I am now a volunteer attorney for them. It is righteous work but I am paranoid about telling people I about it. I often leave it off my resume.
Bill O'Reilly may snarl that the "left wing" is trying to silence him, but he has a TV show. Its people like me, and the girls I work with, who have truly been silenced. We are the ones who are staring down the barrel of a gun.
Everybody loves parental consent laws for abortion.They are an easy sell. Who wouldn't want parents involved in the medical decisions of their daughter? And as the pundits are quick to point out the vast majority of teens approach their parents first anyway, so this law only affects a small number of young women.
What that means in practice is that the only people truly affected are the people you would least like to see affected: abused teens, abandoned teens, and teen in situations of novel dysfunction.
Judicial Bypass is supposed to be the safety valve on parental consent/notification laws. It's supposed to be a way for abused and abandoned teens to opt out. Of course, it’s often a spectacular failure.
Several county and district clerks in my state flat out refuse to accept teens' applications to speak to a judge: a completely illegal act. These are often the same people who accuse clinic staff of disregarding the various restrictive laws that have been woven like a web around them.
There are also a fair number of judges in my state, who have publicly declared they will reject any applicant that comes before them, and then do so. (They are elected after all.)
The people who help: the clerks and judges who make an effort to listen before they judge, they don’t speak up much. Discretion, moderation, even humility about personal fallibility are all anathema where abortion is concerned. If you can’t concede the ethos and pathos of the argument to those who “truly believe” it's always murder, it's best not to say anything at all.
The very first call I took at Jane’s Due Process was from a 17-year-old who said bluntly, “My mom’s in jail and my dad’s in Iraq.” She was living with her older sister who was 22, but the clinics were not allowed to accept the sister’s consent because she was not the legal guardian.
Both sisters thought they could get either of their parents to consent, but there was a timing issue. My state (Texas) only allows abortions up to 21 weeks. It routinely took two or three months for mail to circulate from the base address the girls had to the frontlines where their father was, and then back to them.
Their mother, they said, couldn’t receive registered letters at all. So, by the time the permission form got back, a legal abortion would be unavailable. We set her up with a lawyer to try and get a bypass.
I received more than one call from grandmothers who had been turned away by the clinics. They had often been raising their grandchildren from the time they were toddlers. The parents were MIA, but the relationship was informal. They’d been allowed to enroll their granddaughters in school, to claim them as tax dependants, to get them vaccinated, to make every medical decision before this one, but not a decision about abortion.
These of course, were the easy cases. Abuse was much trickier. First off, though abuse was a reason for circumventing parental consent/notification, if a teenager admitted that she was abused, the judge was required by law to open a protective services case.
This then triggered an investigation, at which time parents generally found out that she had gone to court and obtained an abortion. (Defeating the whole point of a bypass.)
You might think that getting an abused teen out of the household would be a universally good thing, but these are older teens, 15, 16, 17, and the system hates them. There is no good place for older abused teens to live when they are removed from their family. Often they are sent to juvenile detention centers. Rarely is the effort made to ensure that they stay in the same school and receive the continuity of education that is necessary to graduate. They are low priority.
Secondly, these are kids who have survived abusive households for more than a decade and a half; they often think it’s normal. We were trained to ask these young women what the worst punishment they had received was. I still remember the 16-year-old who scoffed at that idea that she was abused and then when asked about punishment said, “Well, he once threw me through the bathroom wall.”
The last type of call was often from immigrant kids, who protective services would never consider abused, but who faced dire consequences if their families discovered their pregnancies.
We had one Ethiopian 17-year-old, a girl with a full college scholarship, who faced being sent back to Africa, denied the chance to go to school, and “circumcision”. She was quite forceful. She told us about a beloved cousin, who when faced with the same situation had been persuaded to tell her parents by a “crisis” pregnancy center; the cousin was gone. Her parents had arranged for her “treatment” in Ethiopia and for her marriage there.
I even sent a girl to Kansas once; she was a marathon runner and a track star. She lost her period every year during training season and so really did not know she was pregnant until the middle of the second trimester. Her parents were hardcore religious, and she knew that they would turn her out on the streets no matter what happened with the pregnancy. She didn’t want to be homeless.
None of these teens get to speak out – it wouldn't be safe for them to. We get to pass laws that endanger their lives, but they can’t protest. I worked for them, tried to protect them, but have always kept a slight veil of anonymity because I’m afraid of the personal and professional consequences of doing the right thing, of talking about doing the right thing, in a world that bombastically declares it wrong.
I know I am helping the right-wing make something private into something shameful by being discrete. But I don’t have a TV show, I don’t have security guards. All I have is the residual fear that somewhere there is a man with a gun, looking for our office, who is absolutely certain he has the right to shoot me, because I help teenagers get abortions.
When in this “debate” do my deep convictions get honored?
A.J. Zachary is a staff attorney and freelance writer in Texas, USA. She blogs here.