Judges Are Denying Teen Abortions for Their Own Moral Reasons

In 37 states, an underage person seeking an abortion without their guardians' approval has to go to court, where a judge may refuse their case based on personal belief.
a courtroom
Photo by Nopparat Khokthong / EyeEm via Getty Images

According to new research, up to 13 percent of all teens seeking to get legal approval for an abortion without their parent’s involvement or consent are getting denied by judges in Texas, up from a mere 2.8 percent only a few years before. The study published in the American Journal of Public Health on Thursday is the first research to look at how often judges deny teens’ petitions for abortion, and mostly due to the judges’ personal and political opinions and not the actual merits of the cases, like if the procedure is medically recommended.


Thirty-seven states currently require pregnant minors to get the green light from one or both parents before receiving an abortion. (To put this into perspective, about 350,000 people 18 and under get pregnant in the United States each year, 82 percent of which pregnancies are unintended, and 31 percent of which are aborted.) It’s estimated that, depending on the state, anywhere from two percent to 23 percent of teens seeking an abortion pursue it via judicial bypass, which dates back to a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision which ruled that parents do not have an "absolute veto” over a child’s abortion.

In states requiring judicial bypass, an underage pregnant person seeking an abortion without their parents’ or guardians' approval (most commonly, they might fear their guardians will be violent or kick them out) has to go to court. In that case, a judge evaluates the minor’s intelligence and emotional stability and the potential consequences of getting an abortion to decide whether they’re fit for the procedure.

In Texas, judges denied about five percent of cases between 2001 and 2003. Between 2004 and 2015, the rate of denial dropped and hovered around 2.8 percent until, in 2016, Texas adopted a stricter approach that evaluates the minor’s life experiences and whether they explored alternative options to abortion; limits the locations they can file; and requires the judge to make a decision within five days, or else the petition is denied by default. Following the change, the percentage of cases denied nearly tripled, increasing to 10.3 percent. (The study did not cross-reference the rate with any changes to pregnancy rates for teens within the state.)


According to the researchers, judicial bypass “exists to assure that a parent cannot veto a teenager's abortion decision. But instead, it is just giving that veto power to a judge.”

A different report from 2018 that found that the judicial bypass process itself is humiliating and shame-inducing: In some cases, the judges assigned pastors or deacons to guide the pregnant minors on their decision to terminate the pregnancy—or “preach” about the wrongdoings of abortion, as one teen quoted in the study said. In another case, a judge banned an abortion because he felt the pregnancy was too far along, despite the fact that the patient’s physician recommended she get one.

This news comes at a critical point when many states are tweaking parental involvement requirements for abortion. Florida is considering stricter legislation that would require minors to obtain consent from a parent before an abortion. On the other end of the spectrum, Massachusetts is considering dropping this sort of legislation altogether, which would significantly ease the burden of getting safe abortion care by helping minors go about getting an abortion with dignity, according to Advocates for Youth.

Past research has shown that parental involvement laws lower abortion rates and delay care, and we already know delaying or being denied an abortion can come with serious lifelong physical and mental impacts. Though the judicial bypass system was designed to help minors, the research indicates that it's harming young people by dragging them through a process that contradicts the constitutional standards it was meant to uphold.

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