When a Fetus Is a 'Child' Who Needs Protection, But a Pregnant Teen Isn't
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia


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When a Fetus Is a 'Child' Who Needs Protection, But a Pregnant Teen Isn't

For weeks, a pregnant, undocumented 17-year-old has been held hostage by the government and denied an abortion. She was finally allowed to get one this morning—but that doesn't change the horrific injustice she endured.

About a month and a half ago, an undocumented 17-year-old girl from Central America, known as Jane Doe in court documents, attempted to cross the US border into Texas by herself. Before she left, according to reports, she allegedly watched her parents beat her older sister after learning she was pregnant, hitting her with cables and firewood until she miscarried. After being apprehended by immigration officials and taken to a refugee shelter, Jane Doe learned she, too, was pregnant.


This morning, after a prolonged, Kafkaesque legal battle that pitted her against the Trump administration, Jane Doe was finally able to get an abortion. For six weeks now, she's been held in federal custody, forced to carry a pregnancy she does not want. At the start of this ordeal, she was nine weeks pregnant. As of last night, she was 16 weeks along.

"Justice prevailed today for Jane Doe. But make no mistake about it, the administration's efforts to interfere in women's decisions won't stop with Jane," the ACLU's Brigitte Amiri, one of the lead lawyers on the case, said in a statement. "With this case we have seen the astounding lengths this administration will go to block women from abortion care."

The lengths have indeed been astounding: Because Jane is a minor and her parents didn't know about her condition, she had to petition a judge for the right to get an abortion. On September 25—a full month ago—she obtained the necessary court order. With a court-appointed guardian, she was also able to navigate the cruel and perplexing bureaucracy around abortion access in Texas, arranging for transportation to a clinic and finding someone willing to pay for the procedure, which became increasingly expensive and dangerous as time passed. (At this point in the pregnancy, it would have cost over $1000.) Once Jane Doe and her guardian had managed to surmount all these legal and financial barriers, there was only one thing left standing in their way: the policies of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which controls the shelter in which Jane is currently being held.


Under the Trump administration, ORR has become the site of "anti-choice fanaticism," as Rewire puts it. A new policy, instituted in March of this year, prohibits their shelters from taking "any action that facilitates" abortion access for unaccompanied minors without express approval from recently appointed ORR director Scott Lloyd, a prominent and very zealous Catholic attorney with absolutely no experience resettling refugees. In his new position, Lloyd appears to be on a crusade to prevent unaccompanied, undocumented minors from obtaining abortion care. According to court documents, he has personally contacted other girls in Jane Doe's position to discuss their decision to terminate their pregnancies. In an email sent earlier this year, he justified his behavior thusly: "The unborn child is a child in our care."

This is the system working as abortion opponents have designed it to work. The entire point of restricting abortion access is to force women into childbirth.

Jane Doe was originally scheduled for an abortion on September 29, but ORR refused to take her. Instead, she was forced to go to a religiously affiliated "crisis pregnancy center," where she was discouraged from going through with the procedure. "They made me see a doctor that tried to convince me not to abort and to look at sonograms. People I don't even know are trying to make me change my mind," Jane Doe recalled in a statement. "I made my decision and that is between me and God. Through all of this, I have never changed my mind."


On Tuesday, a federal appeals court vacated a previous order that would have delayed Jane Doe's abortion until Halloween, ordering that she should be allowed to get an abortion "promptly and without delay." Thankfully, she was able to do so.

This morning, Jane was able to see a measure of justice. But the fact remains that a vulnerable teenager has been held hostage by the US government for weeks, and denied medical care she had every right to access, because of a purely ideological obsession with protecting fetuses. It's appalling that she had to endure this; it's grotesque that government officials would want her to.

Her case has been compared endlessly to The Handmaid's Tale, but in truth it's far from the realm of fiction. What happened to Jane Doe is the result of extreme, Trump-era policies as well as a decade of anti-abortion zealotry at the state level. This is the system working as abortion opponents have designed it to work. The entire point of restricting abortion access is to force women into childbirth with no consideration for their autonomy, their constitutional rights, or the complex and painful situations they may find themselves in.

Jane Doe's case is extreme, and it's completely unconscionable. It's sickening that a helpless teenager, who traveled unknown miles seeking safety, has been denied medical treatment because the US government sees her fetus—and not her—as "a child in our care" deserving of full legal protection. But what our government did to Jane is also the logical conclusion of the hundreds of anti-abortion provisions enacted in the past few years by lawmakers who hypocritically claim to be doing noble, moral work "protecting life" while forcing women into desperate situations. By design, this sort of insidious policymaking disproportionately affects the populations that can't afford to navigate the frustrating and seemingly endless gauntlet of unnecessary regulations around abortion care: poor women, young women, women of color, women who live in rural areas, and undocumented women. It is precisely because Jane Doe is so vulnerable that she was subjected to such horrific treatment by the state.

What our government did to this pregnant, scared teenager lays bare the ugly truth at the heart of anti-abortion arguments, one that anti-choicers try so fervently to obscure: The opposite of reproductive choice is forced motherhood, which bestows full humanity on gestating fetuses at the expense of the women carrying them.