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Undocumented teenager in detention can get abortion, judge rules

The federal government must allow an undocumented 17-year-old in Texas to get an abortion, a Washington D.C. district judge ruled on Wednesday.

by Antonia Hylton and Carter Sherman
Oct 18 2017, 4:30pm

Updated: 8:05 p.m. ET

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — The federal government must allow an undocumented 17-year-old here to get an abortion, a D.C. district judge ruled on Wednesday. The case has drawn national scrutiny over allegations that the feds are illegally trying to stop minors from getting abortions.

The teenager from Central America, known only as “Jane Doe” in court papers, has been fighting for an abortion ever since she was placed in detention in a South Texas shelter operated under the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Though she secured permission from the state to get an abortion — a requirement in Texas for any minor who wants an abortion without telling her parents — officials have tried to stop her, court documents allege.

Now, Doe should be able to get the abortion, according to the temporary restraining order issued by Judge Tanya Chutkan.

“[Doe] will suffer irreparable injury in the form of, at a minimum, increased risk to her health, and perhaps the permanent inability to obtain a desired abortion to which she is legally entitled,” Chutkan wrote in her order.

A hearing for a separate case over whether the federal government can stop Doe from getting an abortion was held Tuesday in Brownsville. Although that hasn’t been decided yet — and the Justice Department is expected to immediately file an appeal in the Washington case — lawyers for Doe celebrated in their Brownsville office after the order was released. They cried, high-fived, and talked about having defeated the Goliath of the federal government.

“I’m so relieved and so happy that Jane Doe finally got justice and that she will be able to get the procedure that she should have received three weeks ago if it hadn’t for the govt’s unconstitutional and unconscionable delay,” said Brigitte Amiri, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project who argued for Doe in court on Wednesday.

Not only did the federal officials tell Doe’s mother that she was pregnant, but they also forced Doe to go to a crisis pregnancy center, a religious organization that seeks to stop women from getting abortions, according to court documents.

“They’ve now made it impossible for her, if she wanted to go back to her parents, because of the fear of domestic violence,” one of Doe’s lawyers, Susan Hays, told VICE News. When Doe’s parents found out her older sister was pregnant, Hays said, they beat her with wood and cable cord until she bled. They’ve also beaten Doe using a phone charger, Hays added.

If Doe doesn’t get her abortion this week, she’s going to have a much harder time securing one. The closest abortion provider can only give her the procedure this week. If the court battle drags into next week, Doe would have to drive hundreds of miles to San Antonio to get an abortion.

And she’d have to make the journey twice or stay overnight, thanks to a Texas law that mandates women seeking abortions must receiving counseling 24 hours before the procedure.

Doe’s case isn’t the first time the federal government has tried to intervene in an undocumented woman’s abortion, according to the complaint. “[Office of Refugee Resettlement] Director Scott Lloyd has personally contacted one or more unaccompanied immigrant minors who was [sic] pregnant and seeking abortion, and discussed with them their decision to have an abortion,” the complaint reads.

The Administration for Children and Families, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement late Wednesday that the ruling was “troubling” and “sets a dangerous precedent by opening our borders to any illegal children seeking taxpayer-supported, elective abortions.”

It is already against the law to use federal dollars to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest, or when the woman’s life is at risk.

Though the Trump administration put Lloyd, a vehement opponent of abortion, in charge of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, undocumented women have purportedly grappled with this issue long before the president took office. Federally affiliated religious organizations also tried to stop minors — even ones who’d become pregnant after being raped — from getting abortions under the Obama administration, according to a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Northern California back in June 2016.

That lawsuit will now continue to wind its way through the courts.

“We’re going to try to get an order as quickly as possible to ensure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else ever again,” Amiri told VICE News.

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