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Texas Republicans Set Sights On Minors Seeking Abortions

Todd Wiseman / Callie Richmond
Texas Tribune

Two years after imposing stringent abortion restrictions, Texas Republican lawmakers have set their sights on changing a legal process that allows some minors to obtain abortions without their parents’ permission.

Texas law requires minors to obtain permission for an abortion from at least one parent. But if obtaining an abortion could endanger the minor, she can look to the courts for “judicial bypass” to obtain the abortion without parental consent.

Several bills filed by Republican lawmakers would restrict that legal process by requiring more proof that a minor is at risk for abuse by their parents or limiting the venues where a minor can seek judicial bypass. As the House State Affairs Committee took up one of the strictest proposals during a late Wednesday hearing, supporters of judicial bypass warned lawmakers that reforming the current system could further harm women who are already in vulnerable situations.

“Even minors have a right to decide what they do with unintended pregnancies and particularly those minors,” said Susan Hays, an attorney with Jane’s Due Process, which represents minors in judicial bypass cases. The minors seeking abortions through judicial bypass — a few hundred a year in Texas — are usually abused, homeless or do not live with their parents, Hays and other attorneys told the committee.

For years, opponents of judicial bypass have attempted to close what they call a loophole in a 15-year-old state law that requires parental consent for minors seeking abortions. They argue that if the state is going to take control away from parents, it should reform the judicial bypass process to heighten the burden of proof for minors who say they cannot obtain consent.

House Bill 3994 by state Rep. Geanie Morrison, Republican of Victoria, would enact several far-reaching restrictions on the judicial bypass process, including a requirement that doctors presume a pregnant woman is a minor unless she presents a “valid government record of identification”  — a measure opponents of the bill are calling “abortion ID.”

The bill, which was left pending by the committee, would also restrict where minors can seek judicial bypass. Current law allows minors to file applications for judicial bypass in any county in the state. Morrison’s bill would require minors to file applications in their home county, unless that county has a population under 10,000, or the county where she will obtain the procedure.

Additionally, the measure would require more concrete proof that a minor is “mature and sufficiently well informed” to have an abortion, whether the abortion is in the “best interest of the minor” and whether asking for parental consent could lead to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

“We’re talking about ending a life. It’s a decision that cannot be reversed,” Greg Terra, president and co-founder of the Texas Center for Defense of Life, told the committee. “And we’re talking about taking away the ability of parents to influence that decision. That ought to be a very high burden.”

Attorneys and judges who testified before the committee also raised concerns about a provision of Morrison’s bill that would make public the names of judges who rule on judicial bypass cases. They argued that could bring politics into the courtroom and endanger judges.

“I had a hearing yesterday on a judicial bypass, and I granted it,” Tena Callahan, a state district judge in Dallas County, told the committee. “Now with that information and the Internet, you’re going to know what I look like.”

Some judicial bypass opponents who endorsed Morrison’s bill said it still didn’t go far enough and asked the committee to consider a separate measure by state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, which would also impose extensive restrictions on judicial bypass.

Krause’s bill has not been taken up in committee, but it has picked up ample support, with 35 other representatives signed up as co-authors. Morrison’s bill has 23 co-authors.

Amanda Stevenson, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin's Texas Policy Evaluation Project, said reforming the judicial bypass system would do little to improve Texas' slowly declining rate of teen pregnancy.

Instead, it would force low-income minors into a path that leads to dependence on government assistance and lower outcomes for their children, Stevenson said.

"I understand that a lot of the people who are speaking today are just opposed to abortion in general," Stevenson told the committee. "But speaking from a demographic perspective, there are real implications for the lives of these families and they're not pretty pictures."

New restrictions on abortion could also come as the state continues to defend in court the abortion law, also known as House Bill 2, that was passed in 2013. Abortion providers have legally challenged several provisions of that law. The state is currently waiting on a the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to rule whether a provision that requires facilities that perform abortions to meet hospital-like standards is constitutional.

Only a handful of Texas abortion clinics in the state — all in major metropolitan areas — meet those standards, which include minimum sizes for rooms and doorways, pipelines for anesthesia and other infrastructure found in ambulatory surgical centers.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

The Texas Tribune provided this story.