After passing one of the most extreme anti-abortion laws in the country in 2013, conservative lawmakers have filed at least four bills this session targeting a legal process that allows minors seeking an abortion to do so without their parents’ consent.
Under current law, if a woman under 18 can’t get permission from a parent for an abortion—often because of abuse or repercussions from her family—she can seek a legal, confidential bypass from a judge. However, proposed laws would make the bypass process harder, longer and more cumbersome, abortion rights advocates warn.
In applying for a bypass, a minor must prove to a judge one of three reasons: that she is mature and well-informed enough to have an abortion without her parents’ consent; that notifying her parents is not in her best interest; or that notifying her parents would lead to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
A bill by state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee today, would require that a minor prove all three grounds rather than just one, creating a threshold that could be impossible to overcome for many pregnant teens.
“Together, if the standard were changed, Texas would have one of the most, if not the most, restrictive judicial bypass laws in the country,” said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “It’s essentially a ban on abortion for anyone under the age of 18 unable to involve a parent.”
When minors seek a judicial bypass, the reasons are often complex and delicate. 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.
“My older sister got pregnant when she was 17,” according to one of more than a dozen stories of anonymous pregnant teens posted on the Jane’s Due Process website. “I was in the kitchen when she told my mother. My mother pushed her against the wall, slapped her across the face, and then grabbed her by the hair, pulled her through the living room out the front door and threw her off the porch. I don’t know where my sister is now. I’m considered the good daughter. But I know what my mother is capable of.”
Two additional pieces of legislation that have yet to be scheduled for a hearing—House Bill 3994 by state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) and House Bill 2531 by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth)—are billed as “reform” legislation by anti-abortion groups, but abortion rights leaders see the bills as destroying the bypass process, which was first set up by the Texas Legislature in 1999.
“Minors who seek a judicial bypass don’t do it for frivolous reasons,” said Tina Hester, executive director of Jane’s Due Process. “They know what’s happened to their older sister or older cousins, and they have a real threat. The majority of young women in Texas do involve a parent; this is a safety net that they’re trying to dismantle.”
The two bills would require that a woman seeking an abortion provide her physician with a government-issued identification document to ensure that she is not younger than 18 years old. Morrison’s bill even requires that a physician “presume that a pregnant woman is a minor” unless she presents a government-issued ID.
Morrison’s and Krause’s bills also limit which courts a judicial bypass case can be heard. Currently, an attorney can file a bypass application on behalf of a minor in any county in Texas. Krause’s bill would mandate attorneys file in the minor’s county of residence, while Morrison’s 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.
Limiting the venue may compromise confidentiality and privacy, especially in small, rural parts of the state, said Susan Hays, an Austin-based family law attorney who works with Jane’s Due Process.
HB 3994 and HB 2531 both increase the burden of proof from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing” evidence and require that the minor seeking a bypass appear in court in person.
“The bills have nothing to do with helping pregnant girls,” Hays said. “[They have) everything to do with punishing them and exposing them, and therefore endangering them.”