Twenty-two states, including Colorado, that have not banned abortion still do require those under age 18 to involve their parents before terminating a pregnancy. Their only other option: to seek approval from a judge via a process called judicial bypass.
New University of Colorado research published Jan. 12 in the American Journal of Public Health sheds new light on how many young people must navigate that process, shown in previous research to be traumatizing, and how frequently judges deny them care.
It found that more than one in 10 minors seeking abortions in Texas and Florida between 2018 and 2021 sought judicial bypass, and as many as 13% were denied. About 5,527 minors in Florida and 5,520 in Texas received abortions during the study period.
“States that support abortion rights but continue to mandate parental involvement have a responsibility to consider the true consequences of those mandates,” said co-author Amanda Stevenson, assistant professor of sociology at CU Boulder.
She notes that due to recent statewide bans in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, many minors must now travel across state lines to seek care only to face parental involvement mandates far from home.
“Our research shows that substantial numbers of adolescents cannot involve their parents and rely on judicial bypass, and that bypasses are routinely denied.”
A glimpse inside the court
For the study, Stevenson and co-author Kate Coleman-Minahan, assistant professor at University of Colorado College of Nursing at the Anschutz Medical Campus, analyzed data on bypass petitions and abortions provided to minors in Florida and Texas between 2018 and 2021.
Florida moved from requiring parental notification to requiring consent in 2020. Texas has required parental consent for years and now has a total abortion ban.
In Texas, 10–14% of minors wishing to terminate a pregnancy during the study period had to seek permission through the courts.
In Florida, about 15% of minors seeking abortions sought judicial bypass, and judges denied care to about 13% of them. Denials there doubled over the study period.
“Florida is more critical than ever as a source of abortion care, since it’s now the only place in the region to get an abortion after six weeks, so the fact that teenagers face such a large hurdle to get care there is significant,” said Stevenson.
The team’s previous research found that some teens seeking judicial bypass have experienced family trauma, household substance abuse, or a general fear for their own safety if they were to tell their parents they are seeking an abortion.
Once they begin the bypass process, they’re often confronted with challenges taking time off from school, getting to the courthouse and other obstacles. Many reported finding the process humiliating and frightening, with judges and court-appointed guardians-ad-litem shaming them.
Judges typically require minors to either provide evidence they are “mature” enough to have an abortion (things such as good grades or participation in extracurricular activities) or prove they can’t safely tell their parent, said Coleman-Minahan.
“They are often re-traumatized and re-victimized in court by having to describe their family situations,” she said.
Giving teens a voice
The study also sheds some light on just how many teens from states where abortion is banned may be seeking abortions elsewhere and potentially running up against parental involvement laws.
“Teenagers who are traveling really far to get abortions will also have to involve their parents and get documentation of notification or consent to meet that state’s requirement,” said Stevenson. “That can be logistically challenging to the point of being impossible.”
One Massachusetts study found that complying with parental consent guidelines in state there took about nine days. For those who sought judicial bypass, it took 15.
Reasons for denials are not typically released, but previous studies have shown judges have denied bypasses based on family socioeconomic status, how far along a person was in their pregnancy or a judge’s personal values.
“Our research shows that young people are not just harmed by this process, they are denied abortions and that can have lifelong impacts,” said Stevenson.
The authors call on states such as Colorado and Maryland, that allow abortion access but mandate parental involvement, to routinely report the percentage of minors using the judicial bypass system so that coordinated services can be provided to help young people navigate it.
Colorado requires parental notification but not consent.
They also hope the data will demonstrate that parental involvement laws, which have been widely supported even among some advocates of abortion rights, harm large numbers of individuals and prevent some from getting the care they need.
“If liberal states and organizations are talking about reproductive justice, then that conversation needs to include the needs of young people, too,” said Coleman-Minahan. “They deserve abortion care as much as older people and are often left out of the conversation.”