House Committee Considers Restrictions for Minors Seeking Abortions

State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)
State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)

The House State Affairs Committee considered legislation Wednesday night that would make sweeping changes to a legal process allowing minors to seek an abortion without their parents’ permission. Abortion rights advocates and legal experts warned the changes could endanger vulnerable young women.

Currently, if a woman under 18 can’t get permission from a parent for an abortion—often because of abuse or because her parents aren’t in the picture—she can seek a legal, confidential bypass from a judge. House Bill 3994 by state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) includes a menu of what she and supporters of the bill call “necessary reforms” to the bypass process, including increasing the burden of proof and limiting the counties in which cases can be heard. HB 3994 would also require every person seeking an abortion, regardless of age, to present a government-issued form of identification. Call it voter ID for abortion.

“The intent is improve the protection of the minor girl and ensure that parental rights are protected,” Morrison told the committee as she laid out her bill Wednesday.

Family lawyers who represent minors in bypass cases, however, told committee members that just the opposite would happen. They argued that Morrison’s bill would ultimately destroy the judicial bypass process set up by the Legislature in 1999.

“Even minors have a right to decide what they do with unintended pregnancies,” said Susan Hays, an Austin-based family lawyer and co-founder of Jane’s Due Process, which provides free legal services to pregnant minors. “The state can’t have an absolute veto over [judges’] decisions on these cases.”

Currently, a bypass application can be filed in any county in Texas, but Morrison’s measure would require the application be filed in a minor’s county of residence; a neighboring county, if her home county has a population of 10,000 people or fewer; or the county in which her abortion provider is located. While anti-abortion groups testified that current law essentially amounts to venue-shopping, opponents said it protects confidentiality, especially in rural communities.

“These young women need confidentiality,” Tom Ausley, a family lawyer based in Austin, told the committee. “They do not need to necessarily be in a situation where when they walk in a courtroom, the clerk knows who they are or the judge knows who they are,” Tom Ausley, a family lawyer based in Austin, told the committee.

Current law also requires judges to rule on bypass cases within 48 hours, or the bypass is automatically granted. HB 3994 would expand that period to five days. The legislation also increases the burden of proof from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing” evidence—a standard used by 13 other states, Morrison said.

Finally, the minor seeking a bypass must appear in court under Morrison’s bill.

“We’re talking about ending a life, it’s a decision that cannot be reversed,” Greg Terra, president and lawyer with the Texas Center for the Defense of Life, told committee members Wednesday. “We’re talking about taking away the ability of parents to influence that decision. That ought to be a very high burden.”

When minors seek a judicial bypass, the reasons are often complex. Jane’s Due Process reports that in 2013, 321 pregnant teens reached out to the organization for legal help, information on the bypass process, or pregnancy options. Of those, 17 percent of teens who sought help through Jane’s Due Process reported that they had experienced sexual or physical abuse by a parent at home, and 37 percent feared being kicked out or disowned for being pregnant. Sixteen percent were orphans or had no way to contact a parent for consent to an abortion.

“When you deny vulnerable young women access to abortion, you’re forcing them into teen motherhood,” said Amanda Stevenson, demographer and researcher at the University of Texas’ Policy Evaluation Project.

HB 3994 also requires county clerks to report the location and outcome of each bypass case. Ausley and others raised concerns that doing so would jeopardize the safety of judges.

“I’m terribly worried that if this information is disseminated that judges would be in physical danger,” said Rita Lucido, a Harris County-based lawyer who has represented minors in bypass cases for 15 years.

The committee left the bill pending.

Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

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Published at 10:27 am CST