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With Roe set to fall, minors seeking abortion have few choices left


As we await the Supreme Court decision that's likely to drop later this month, potentially overturning federal abortion protections across this country, we wanted to talk about some of the most vulnerable people who do seek abortions - minors. And we're going to start with a story of a young woman in Texas whom we will call B. That's her first initial. She's not ready for her family to know her story. B was 17 in her senior year of high school back at the end of 2020. She was at her partner's house one day when she had a sinking feeling.

B: I took a few tests just in case. It was one of those things where I was paranoid and just wanted to make sure. And that's when I did find out I was pregnant.

CHANG: At first, she felt paralyzed.

B: I kind of went robotic and shut everything out 'cause I felt like my whole life was going to go down the drain because that's how society portrays it.

CHANG: But it wasn't just societal or family pressures. B says she had her own dreams and plans. She wanted to go to college. She wanted to build a career. And so, she says, she knew what she had to do.

B: I immediately knew that I couldn't take care of it, and abortion was the only choice for me.

CHANG: So just hours after finding out she was pregnant, B went online to look for nearby clinics. She called one up.

B: And that's when I learned that I needed to get a parental consent.

CHANG: You see, in Texas and in most other states across the U.S., minors who are seeking abortions are required by law to have a parent involved. And if they don't want their parents to know or can't get their consent, 36 states have an alternative - a process called judicial bypass, meaning minors have to stand before a judge and prove that they are capable of making the decision to have an abortion alone. B went that route.

B: I was just super scared because whenever you hear the word judge or hearing, it implies that you did something wrong.

CHANG: Before the court process, B had to get an ultrasound to prove that she was pregnant.

B: After that, I had to meet with my doctor and make sure I would keep that doctor because in Texas, in order to get an abortion, you have to have the ultrasound and the abortion with the same doctor.

CHANG: A couple weeks later, she got a hearing, which she says probably lasted 30 minutes.

B: But it felt like hours.

CHANG: B says that today she is really glad she made the decision to get an abortion. It's let her have a life she wouldn't be living otherwise. She got an apartment with her partner, and they just got a dog.

B: Right now I am planning to go to college, and I am working. I plan to have kids in a few years from now, just when I get everything settled and I know that I don't have to struggle with money.

CHANG: Judicial bypass is still possible in Texas, even under SB 8, which banned abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy. But the number of teenagers getting abortions there has decreased significantly since that law passed, in part because most teens don't realize that they are pregnant until after six weeks of pregnancy.

ROSANN MARIAPPURAM: They often have irregular periods, or they might not check until they miss a period, which is at four or five weeks.

CHANG: That's Rosann Mariappuram. She's executive director at Jane's Due Process, an organization that helps teenagers, including B, navigate judicial bypass and interstate travel to seek abortions.

MARIAPPURAM: And then the other big reason is that teens can't travel as easily as adults can, especially if they're keeping their pregnancy confidential. So they have to explain missing school, missing work, being away from home for a day or two.

CHANG: And now, with more abortion restrictions likely coming to over half the country, Texas is a bellwether for what other states could see - smaller windows for judicial bypass, further travel to get abortion care and fewer resources for minors to get the support they need. I spoke with Rosann Mariappuram about the challenges many minors face.

Well, as we heard from B, she was grateful that there was even a process like judicial bypass so that she could avoid telling her parent about her abortion. At the same time, you know, B felt like she had to jump through all these different hoops to make a decision that she ultimately felt was hers to make. And on top of that, I understand that B had to personally deal with a bunch of delays. Like, her first doctor left the clinic she went to, so she had to start the process all over again. And then the Texas snowstorm hit last February, delaying her procedure again. So I'm wondering, how often do you hear stories about all these obstacles, all these road bumps from your clients?

MARIAPPURAM: I would say, honestly, almost every case has something really complicated to it, and that's just because if you're a young person, you can't tell a parent. That's often because you're already living in other intersections of oppression. So, like, a lot of our youth might be working full time and in school, so they can't miss work for their abortion care because their family needs the money they're making from their job, or we have youth who are in foster care, so they need to make sure that they're not going to get kicked out of their foster care placement because their placement found out they were pregnant, and they're doing this all in secrecy. So I unfortunately would say that most of our clients have these kind of delays and intervening circumstances that make the process even harder.

CHANG: Well, in states that completely ban abortion, assuming Roe v. Wade does get overturned, there will be no point to even have a judicial bypass process. But let me ask you, is there a chance that judicial bypass will also disappear in other states where abortion is still legal in some circumstances?

MARIAPPURAM: So I think because minors are often vulnerable in the sense that they can't vote, they often don't have voices at the legislature, it will continue to be that anti-abortion lawmakers try to attack judicial bypass. And we just saw that happen in Florida within the past two years. They went from requiring parental notification to consent. So there's a solid effort to continue attacking minors and making judicial bypass harder, even in states where abortion might remain legal.

CHANG: And why is that? Why do you expect further attacks on the judicial bypass process even in states where abortion is still legal?

MARIAPPURAM: I think that our society stigmatizes sex, period, but it really stigmatizes sex and pregnancy for teenagers. There's just so much shame associated with getting pregnant if you're under 18, and I think it's an easy target that anti-abortion lawmakers have pursued. And unfortunately, even groups that support abortion access and support sexual and reproductive health haven't stood up hard enough for minors.

CHANG: I know that your organization helps teenagers with interstate travel out of Texas for abortions. And now the latest legal development near Texas concerning abortion seems to be a ban going into effect in Oklahoma. How might that ban affect the clients that you're serving now?

MARIAPPURAM: So yeah, when you think about travel, a lot of people drive, and so Oklahoma was the closest state for many people. It wasn't always a great option for youth because they do have judicial bypass, and it can be complicated to get a bypass in Oklahoma, but we were referring youth there. So now you have to go even a state further. And for some youth, that's just going to be impossible, especially if you think about driving from, like, Central Texas or the Rio Grande Valley all the way up to Colorado.

CHANG: Yeah.

MARIAPPURAM: That's just too far for many teens.

CHANG: Yeah, I can imagine so. I mean, that puts teenagers in Texas in a really tough spot. So how can Jane's Due Process help teenagers who find themselves in that situation?

MARIAPPURAM: So we'll always be here to provide information and to let teens know their legal rights. But I believe that, to a certain degree, you know, they're being trapped. They're being forced into pregnancies against their will. And if it's happening here in Texas, it's going to happen all over the country. So an entire generation is going to lose a right that the rest of us have enjoyed for 50 years. So I am really concerned about the impact on teens.

CHANG: Yeah. Rosann Mariappuram is the executive director of Jane's Due Process. Thank you very much for joining us.

MARIAPPURAM: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.