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Florida judges increasingly deny teen abortions, a Human Rights Watch report says

Access denied report on computer screen
Health News Florida
An image of a computer displaying the Human Rights Watch report, "Access Denied." Margaret Wurth, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who authored the report, found that Florida judges denied more than 1 in 8 abortion petitions from minors in 2020 and 2021.

The nonprofit, which is calling for the repeal of the state's parental involvement law, found that Florida judges denied 3.3% of petitions by minors in 2007 compared with 13.3% in 2020.

Florida judges are denying abortion requests from minors at four times the rate done nearly two decades ago, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

In Florida, anyone under 18 seeking an abortion must have consent from a parent or a legal guardian. Foster parents do not qualify.

The consent process in Florida, passed by the Legislature in 2021, requires a parent or legal guardian to give to the physician a copy of a government-issued proof of identification and sign a notarized document of consent.

Previously, the state required parental notification, which meant that a doctor had to call or see the patient's parent or legal guardian at least 48 hours before the abortion and document it in the minor’s files.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that parents may not reject their child's decision to have an abortion without the states providing an alternative, a judge can overrule a parent or legal guardian's rejection through a process called judicial bypass.

"We saw a spike in denials after this change went into effect," said Margaret Wurth, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who authored the report, "Access Denied."

She found that Florida judges denied more than 1 in 8 petitions in 2020 and 2021.

In one case, a judge wrote about a minor's “soft-spoken and shy” demeanor in the petition denial. A judge rejected another minor's petition, writing that she didn't have the intelligence to make a decision to have an abortion because of her high school grade-point average and lack of having a driver’s license.

In 2007, judges denied about 3% of minors' requests for abortions in Florida. In 2022, judges turned down more than 8% statewide.

Human Rights Watch used data from Florida courts on the judicial bypass process and also public court records from cases decided by appeals courts.

The report also found that Hillsborough County judges denied teens' abortion requests at a higher rate than elsewhere in Florida.

In 2021, the report found that Palm Beach County denied 10% of petitions, up from 6.9% the previous year. Broward County denied more than 6% in 2021, up from 3.1% in 2020. Miami-Dade didn’t reject any of the 45 requests across those years.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, is calling for a full repeal of the parental involvement law, to allow a minor to choose a trusted person.

"They would access care without going through this burdensome and traumatizing court process, where they face the possibility of a judge saying, 'I will not give you the court order to access abortion care,' and force them to be pregnant against their wishes," Wurth said.

She said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has repealed the state's parental notification law, a move applauded by Human Rights Watch.

Wurth said minors don't get much time to go through the courts, to get the attorney appointed by the court, go through an appeals process when necessary — and that's on top of the 24-hour waiting period between two clinic visits and the 15-week ban on abortions in Florida.

Kate Coleman-Minahan, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado College of Nursing, and Amanda Jean Stevenson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, found that Florida has had an increase in the percentage of denials of petitions to judicial bypass, when compared to Texas between 2018 and 2021. They chose to compare large states with increased restrictions on minors seeking abortions and found, in their study published in the American Journal of Public Health late last year, that compared to Texas, the percentage of denials is higher and increasing in Florida.

One reason could be the time it takes for attorneys or nonprofits to learn the new changes in requirements and be able to support minors who seek abortions.

Also, judges may have become "more emboldened to deny bypasses," said Coleman-Minahan. "They were more emboldened to follow what they they felt based on their own personal opinions or values. It's possible in Florida, that judges were more emboldened to deny cases because the state essentially reinforced that young people shouldn't be getting abortions. They shouldn't be doing it without parental involvement. The state agreed as a whole to make it harder for young people to get abortions."

Stevenson said these laws transmit a signal to the courts and to the public at large "that people shouldn't have abortions and that people who need abortions should experience hardships on their path to seeking care. So that affirmation of the wrongness, unacceptability of abortion that the Florida Legislature articulated in its law and then the Florida courts articulated in their rulings, that transmits into the culture."

Researchers like them worry about the trauma or other health impacts felt by minors who face a fallout with a parent who's not supportive, or who's abusive or retaliatory if they find out about an abortion.

Wurth, of Human Rights Watch, said these are "the consequences you can't measure. Those for whom this law makes it so hard to access care."

"You can't legislate respectful, loving relationships," Wurth continued. "Those who have loving parents will involve them. A judge should not determine someone's access to health care. We understand loving parents want to be involved and it's on them to build those trusting relationships with their children."

Attorney Kristen Flynn, who's based in Palm Beach County and works pro bono with minors before their court hearings, criticized the system's limitations. She said she feels frustrated by the restrictions.

"Why isn't it OK that you [can] bring any trusted adult with you to sign off? Why does it have to be a legal guardian? The fact that they put that term 'legal' in place really limits the adults that can try to help." Flynn said.

"It should be allowed to be any trusted adult in your life, whether it's Grandma, someone from your church, the baby's father's mother."

Flynn gets paired with minors through the organization If/When/How.

The organization connects minors with her so she can explain how to file a petition, what paperwork is needed, what the hearings are going to be like or how to ask for an attorney, for instance.

Flynn says a court might schedule a hearing anywhere from 30 minutes to days from the filing of the petition at the clerk's office. That might not give a minor enough time to get advice or help from an attorney.

Florida is one of six states that require parental consent. The others include Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah and Virginia.

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Verónica Zaragovia