In Texas, there are 24 pregnancies for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19. The state also has the highest national average of repeat teen births, which are associated with poor health and economic outcomes for both the teen and the baby. Half of teens who become pregnant end up dropping out of high school; their children are also more likely to drop out.
Now, the state’s new law banning abortion access after six weeks of pregnancy, Senate Bill 8, has made the procedure all but impossible to access for minors.
The law bans abortion before many people even know they’re pregnant, and Texas is one of 37 states requiring parental consent for abortion. That adds another hurdle: If pregnant minors cannot get their parents’ approval, they need what’s called judicial bypass, a legal document that can be granted by a judge after a teen secures a lawyer, files a petition and appears at a court hearing before a judge at least once.
That means that abortion is now inaccessible to Texas minors in all but the rarest of situations, said Joanna Grossman, a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas and a board member and volunteer attorney at Jane’s Due Process, which provides free legal representation to minors who need judicial bypasses in the state.
Here’s what that rarest of situations would look like: A teen has perfect information about their menstrual cycle, detects a pregnancy on the first possible day, knows how to get an appointment for an abortion procedure, and accesses an appointment without any lags in scheduling. The teen would be told at their first appointment, where a sonogram is performed and the pregnancy is dated, that they will need either parental consent or a judicial bypass to be able to proceed with their second appointment for the actual abortion procedure. If for any reason a young person is unable to get parental consent for their procedure, they then must figure out how to navigate the judicial bypass process.
In Texas, clinics refer many patients to Jane’s Due Process: 325 in 2019, most of them 17 years old and the overwhelming majority people of color. After contacting the group, they are matched with an attorney so they can file a petition with a judge to begin the bypass process. At that point, a judge has five business days to set a hearing for that minor’s judicial bypass case — though a judge also has the option of denying the bypass outright after the initial petition is filed or simply refusing to act on it. In that situation, a minor then has the opportunity to appeal, with filing then starting another five-day clock.
If everything goes smoothly, with no delays, it’s two weeks from when a pregnant minor goes to a clinic to when they get a bypass and can schedule the procedure, Grossman said. That would make them six weeks pregnant, the law’s limit.
“It would be by random chance that a minor happened to figure it out quickly enough and acted quickly enough with no barriers. But when you add in any real life, it will always take longer,” Grossman said.
Real life provides myriad opportunities for delays: knowing when to take a pregnancy test, being able to afford a pregnancy test, wanting time to discuss options with a partner or trusted adult, figuring out the logistics of how to get to a clinic or a court hearing in the middle of the school day, figuring out how to pay for the procedure itself.
Grossman said the organization is already receiving far fewer calls and texts from potential clients. “That’s most likely because minors are in part correctly perceiving this situation: ‘Why bother when I’m not going to be able to do this?’”
The plaintiffs in the suit attempting to block the law have estimated that 85 percent of all abortions are now illegal in Texas, said Rosann Mariapurram, the executive director of Jane’s Due Process, but for her client base, that number is now much, much higher. It’s why, she says, the organization is one of the co-plaintiffs in the case against the state over the legality of SB 8. Minors typically contact Jane’s Due Process after being referred to the organization by an abortion clinic, meaning only those who are before six weeks gestational age are sent its way. If someone contacts the group who is further along in their pregnancy than that, the Jane’s Due Process would then inform them of their need to go out of state for abortion care.
“For our clients specifically, they don’t have the same freedom of movement that adults do. So they just don’t get to access abortion,” she said. A judicial bypass is granted by a judge in the county in which you have residency, with appeals ultimately going up to the state Court of Appeals. It’s a process inherently tied to a person’s address.
Mariappuram is working to ensure that everyone in the organization feels protected in the face of a law that lets anyone sue someone they believe has “aided and abetted” a person accessing an abortion after six weeks. And it certainly has made people feel scared, Mariappuran said, with volunteers, staff and board members alike all raising questions about what’s safe for them to do and what information they share with their client base.
“The law is designed to scare people away from sharing information, and it’s working — but we’re doing everything we can to protect folks,” she said.
Mariappuram said getting potential clients the right information is a huge task for Jane’s Due Process. “A ton of our work literally today is letting teens know they still can call us and providing people with information. People are scared to seek out that information today.”
HK Gray, a former Jane’s Due Process client and now an advocacy fellow, had an abortion with a judicial bypass when she was 12 weeks pregnant, something that is now illegal in Texas. She understands the fear and confusion that she hears from Jane’s Due Process clients, many of whom are contacting the organization under the assumption that abortion is illegal across the board in Texas right now. These minors are now fearful of breaking the law by even inquiring about abortions, a situation all the more fraught given that so many are young people who are simply unable to include their parents in the process.
Some minors can’t get permission from parents who have been deported or are incarcerated. Some are in unsafe home situations, fearful of what would happen if they so much as told their parents they were pregnant. For them, the judicial bypass process isn’t a choice, but their only option.
The desire to help young people in need of abortion care has never felt more urgent for Jane’s Due Process staff.
“The most vulnerable Texans have been left with close to no options,” Gray said. Even before the law’s implementation, she described the judicial bypass process as “extremely stressful” and one “made to dehumanize and demean the people going through it.” The “Janes” who go through the judicial bypass are grilled about their sexual history and their knowledge of reproductive health and are often asked to share intimate details about how their pregnancies came about and the relationships that produced them.
“It’s made to make you question your choice and whether you are capable of making it and a responsible person, in general. The whole process is designed to make you feel very small,” Gray said.
Gray called the judicial bypass process “the most draining and depressing thing I’ve ever been through in my life — not because I was having an abortion, but because every step along the way someone is undermining you and making you feel like a child.”
The legal standards for judicial bypasses are in theory objective. A Supreme Court rulings from the 1970s determined that if states want to have parental involvement in abortion care access, they also have to allow for a judicial bypass process that is expeditious, protects confidentiality and meets certain legal standards for rulings. But, Grossman said, someone’s experience within the bypass system is largely determined by geography. Minors who live in more urban, liberal areas have very different experiences than those who live in more rural counties where judges are often conservative and vocal in their anti-abortion stance. Researchers have confirmed that the way in which judicial bypasses are granted by judges across the state is inconsistent.
In the meantime, Mariappurram said, education is one of the organization’s main focuses right now, on everything from when to take a pregnancy test to where to access pregnancy tests and how pregnancies are dated.
“Hopefully we will help people still be able to get care in Texas, but the vast majority of people we work with now won’t be able to,” she said. “Young people don’t always have regular periods, they’re not always tracking their periods — right now we’re looking at a lot of people trying to do the best they can, but this law feels like a full abortion ban for our clients.”