When a 17-year-old girl in Florida, called “Jane Doe,” sought judicial bypass to have an abortion without the involvement of her parents, as state law requires, the judge presiding over her case deemed her GPA too low. The judge denied Doe the legal permission to have an abortion without her parents’ knowledge, presumably because having poor grades means a teenager should definitely be required to become a parent.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared E. Smith took particular issue with Doe testifying that she had a “B” average, despite records showing a lower GPA, and wrote in his decision that her “testimony evinces either a lack of intelligence or credibility, either of which weigh against a finding of maturity pursuant to the statute.” A district court later overruled that decision by a 2-1 margin, noting that Doe’s GPA “demonstrate[d] average intelligence for a high school student”—as if grades, academic achievement, or really any factor, let alone one so arbitrary, should dictate a minor’s human rights.
In the 38 states that require some form of parental involvement for minors seeking abortion care, reasoning like Smith’s could and often does deny teens judicial bypass. In 2014, Mother Jones analyzed 40 cases of teens seeking judicial bypass, and in three cases, their reporting found judges denied petitions because they deemed a teen who got pregnant by accident too immature to have an abortion. Paradoxically, this thinking implies someone who supposedly isn’t mature enough to have an abortion should be forced to give birth and possibly become a parent. In a similar vein, if Judge Smith was so concerned with Doe’s grades, I somehow doubt the physical and mental duress of forced pregnancy and birth would improve her GPA.
Last year, a 21-year-old woman named Anna told me about her experience seeking judicial bypass to get an abortion in Texas when she was 17, shortly after she was denied emergency contraception at her local pharmacy. In the process, she said she had to “memorize [her] whole abortion procedure, describe to them how it works, describe the actual medical insurance that you use, and what parts of the body and what kind of drugs” are involved in an abortion. Anna called it a “dehumanizing process” that subjected her to “judgment and shaming for being sexually active and female.” She recalled her judge, who ultimately granted her judicial bypass, telling her “girls don’t even feel good when they have sex.”
The experiences of Jane Doe in Florida and Anna in Texas reflect that even when teens are ultimately granted judicial bypass, it’s not without an exhausting, dehumanizing process that requires them to know more about abortion and the medical system than most adults do.
Still, Judge John Stargel, the dissenting judge in the Florida district court ruling that offered Doe judicial bypass last week, wrote that “the majority discounts most of the trial court’s concerns regarding Doe’s overall intelligence, emotional development and stability, and ability to accept responsibility.” Stargel’s concerns about her “ability to accept responsibility” equate pregnancy and parenthood with punishment, and it’s this line of thinking that stigmatizes and denies teen parents basic resources and supports to care for themselves and their children.
All parental involvement laws for abortion are ultimately about punishing supposedly careless teens, and exemplify how precarious the human rights and bodily autonomy of young people, especially those of color and those with disabilities, are in the US. These laws often ignore how many minors have abusive parents who would physically harm them if they knew of their pregnancies, or how many may even be estranged from their parents. Young people—and especially young people of color—also face concerning rates of sexual abuse from parents or caretakers, and research has shown they face greater risk of reproductive coercion or birth control tampering from partners.
In a 2021 report, Human Rights Watch notes that the majority of people who seek judicial bypass are Black, Indigenous and other young people of color who routinely face discrimination and mistreatment in the legal system. Advocates have also pointed out that youth of color are more likely than to be raised by or have closer relationships with members of their extended family, and parental involvement requirements center the experiences of minors from white, traditional, nuclear families. Parental involvement laws are just part of a rapidly growing web of abortion restrictions that systematically targets and strips low-income people and people of color of basic reproductive freedoms.
All in all, judicial bypass processes for minors are as ironic as they are galling. In most states, minors seeking a basic health service to relieve them from the violence of forced pregnancy are required to know more about the US health system than the legislators who write these laws. And based on the jarring stupidity of some of the judges who presided over Jane Doe’s case in Florida, minors seeking abortions are clearly held to a higher intellectual standard than their judges, too.