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Teen not mature enough to get an abortion, Florida court rules

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A Florida appeals court on Monday upheld a ruling that denied a 16-year-old an abortion out of concern she lacked the maturity to make the decision, despite her statements that she “is not ready to have a baby.”

The teenager, described in court documents as “almost seventeen years-old and parentless” and identified only as Jane Doe 22-B, had submitted a handwritten petition seeking a waiver of the state’s parental notification and consent requirements. Under Florida law, an abortion generally cannot be performed on a minor without the consent of a parent or guardian.

In her petition, according to the appeals court, the teenager wrote that she is still in school and doesn’t have a job, and that “the father is unable to assist her.” Court records indicate she was 10 weeks pregnant at the time she sought a court’s permission to end her pregnancy.

Jane Doe 22-B lives with a relative and has an appointed guardian.

She is pursuing a GED through a program that supports young women who have experienced trauma. She suffered “renewed trauma,” according to the appeals court’s ruling, after the death of a friend. She decided to seek an abortion shortly afterward.

Escambia County Circuit Judge Jennifer Frydrychowicz denied the petition in what one judge with the 1st District Court of Appeal, Scott Makar, said appeared to be “a very close call.” The appeals court upheld Frydrychowicz’s ruling, with a majority of the three-judge panel agreeing that the lower court’s order and findings “are neither unclear nor lacking” in a way that would require reconsideration.

The decision was condemned by Florida lawmakers who support abortion access. State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D) wrote on Twitter that there is “Lots of cruelty in Florida’s anti-abortion policies.”

“Instead of trusting and listening to her,” she wrote of the 16-year-old, “the state forces her to give birth.”

Florida legal experts said it’s difficult to grasp the full context of the case because details from the trial court are sealed, though they questioned why the girl was not appointed a lawyer and why she checked a box on her petition saying she didn’t request one.

Thirty-five states have judicial bypass laws, which allow minors to ask the court to grant them permission to get an abortion where they would otherwise need a parent or guardian’s approval. Florida has among the tougher standards, according to Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California at Davis who formerly taught in Florida on the history, politics and law of reproductive health care. State lawmakers expanded Florida’s parental-involvement law in 2020, requiring that teens not only notify a parent but also obtain their consent.

“Trying to glean what the trial judge was doing is tough,” Ziegler said. “But this is a person who we know has experienced recent trauma and is not an expert in navigating the legal system. That seems to be held against her, or signaled she’s ‘not mature.’ ”

In one puzzling detail from the case, the teen said in her petition that her guardian “is fine with what [she] wants to do.” If the guardian supports her decision, Ziegler said, it is unclear why the case went into a bypass procedure in the first place.

“It’s also somewhat striking because denials are not that common,” Ziegler said.

How hard is it to get a court-approved abortion? For one teen, it came down to GPA.

The trial court judge’s ruling raised other questions.

Determining a petitioner’s maturity is ultimately up to the judge’s discretion, though they typically follow a pattern, according to Jeri Beth Cohen, a retired child-welfare judge in Miami-Dade County.

Cohen, who heard judicial bypass cases during her time on the bench, said she would ask petitioners if they had talked to trusted adults about their situation, if they were in school or worked, whom they lived with, if they understand the basics of the abortion procedure and why they felt it was not right for them to continue their pregnancy.

Judges, Cohen said, also consider “maturity, or”: Is a minor mature, or are they in a situation where getting a parent or guardian’s consent would be dangerous or disadvantageous, such as a case in which the minor was abused by their caretaker?

“The dissent seemed to lay out very clearly that she was questioned at length and seemed to show maturity, so that should be the end of it,” Cohen said. “Once you make these determinations, you pretty much have to grant [the bypass].”

Cohen also noted in cases where there is a parent or guardian who consents, a signed and notarized waiver must be sent to the abortion provider within 30 days of the procedure — and that such a form does not appear to be attached to the girl’s petition.

“It is not sufficient to simply state that the guardian has no objection. That’s most likely why the clinic sent her for a judicial bypass,” Cohen said. A guardian ad litem (GAL) who is appointed by the court to represent a minor cannot give that consent, only legal guardians or parents, she said.

Makar, of the appeals court, agreed in part with Judges Harvey Jay and Rachel Nordby in their ruling but wrote that the case should be sent back to the lower court for a potential reevaluation. His partially dissenting opinion offers a rare window into the case.

In it, he wrote that Frydrychowicz “displayed concern for the minor’s predicament throughout the hearing; she asked difficult questions of the minor on sensitive personal matters in a compassionate manner.” The hearing took place in the judge’s chambers, with the teenager’s case worker and a guardian ad litem attending alongside her.

Makar stated that based on a transcript, the teen was “knowledgeable about the relevant considerations in terminating her pregnancy” and had looked through a pamphlet and searched Google for more information about her options and potential consequences.

“The trial court noted that the minor ‘acknowledges she is not ready for the emotional, physical, or financial responsibility of raising a child’ and ‘has valid concerns about her ability to raise a child,’ ” he continued.

In denying the petition, Makar wrote, Frydrychowicz left open the possibility for additional proceedings by saying that the girl might be able to “adequately articulate” her request at a later time and that the court might reevaluate its decision. The key factor appeared to be the Frydrychowicz’s initial concern that the teenager’s assessment of the benefits and consequences of her decision was “wanting.”

“Reading between the lines, it appears that the trial court wanted to give the minor, who was under extra stress due to a friend’s death, additional time to express a keener understanding of the consequences of terminating a pregnancy,” Makar wrote. “This makes some sense given that the minor, at least at one point, says she was open to having a child, but later changed her view after considering her inability to care for a child in her current station in life.”

Because of time considerations, he said he would have remanded the case back to Frydrychowicz’s court for a reevaluation.

Like Ziegler, Makar also questioned why the case came up for a judicial bypass if the teen’s guardian was, as the teen wrote in her petition, supportive of her decision. He wrote, “If the minor’s guardian consents to the minor’s termination of her pregnancy, all that is required is a written waiver from the guardian.” The teen also “inexplicably checked the box indicating she did not request an attorney,” despite her right to have one appointed at no cost, Makar wrote.

Cohen, the retired child-welfare judge, said a petitioner’s uncertainty about getting an abortion is not a relevant criterion.

“There isn’t a ground that says, ‘Well, if she’s wavering, don’t give it.’ The ground is to grant it if she’s mature enough to make the decision,” Cohen said. “Just because you grant the waiver, doesn’t mean she has to get [an abortion]. Grant it, and if she changes her mind, she changes her mind.”

With Florida’s relatively short 15-week window for abortion (states with fewer restrictions tend to allow abortion up to 22 or 24 weeks of pregnancy), denying the girl’s petition but leaving the door open to potentially revise it and try again may ultimately delay her long enough to where she would be outside the state’s legal window. Any delay, Cohen notes, narrows a petitioner’s options. At 10 weeks, for instance, the girl could get a medical abortion, which is less expensive and invasive than a surgical abortion, which she might need if she has to wait longer.

“It’s very traumatizing to be refused and have to come back. And it gets very expensive,” Cohen said. “Something she can afford today she may not be able to afford tomorrow.”

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