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Age appropriate? Parental consent and abortion access

September 26, 2012

Parental consent laws can be a barrier to young women with an unwanted pregnancy.  Although most young women choose to tell their parents, in 37 states a minor MUST get parental consent or go to a judge for permission to have an abortion.

Getting a judicial bypass takes time but is usually successful.  Many states have panels of pro bono attorneys who assist minors in getting a court appointment and navigating the court system.  These pro bono lawyer panels were pioneered in Massachusetts, the first state to pass a parental consent law (passed in 1974, one year after abortion became legal).

However, many states have very few abortion providers and no system for helping minors who need a judicial bypass.  Arkansas is a good example.  The state has a parental consent law and one abortion provider, based in Little Rock.  Four hours away, RHAP is supporting a family doctor who is integrating abortion into her practice.  Figuring out how she could refer a juvenile to court for a judicial by-pass turned out to be a very good lesson for me in the realities of providing abortion in rural areas and conservative states.

As part of RHAP’s work to support this physician, I wanted to identify a path for minors who needed a judicial bypass because they could not get parental consent.  As a social worker, I have experience calling courts to identify how to get services, so I thought the process in Arkansas would be straightforward.   Not really…

I called the local court; the first person I spoke to had no idea what a judicial bypass was.  This made sense to me as there has never been an abortion provider in this part of the state.  I was then referred to the juvenile court, who referred me to the probation department, who referred me to the Circuit Court.  In each call, people were courteous but had no idea what the process would be.  I tried to imagine a 16 year old with an unwanted pregnancy trying to navigate this system….

I was finally referred to the clerk of the Circuit Court.  She said, “I’ve been here for 12 years; I’ve never heard of this type of petition.”  I offered to send her a copy; her response was, “You can send it, but we don’t give ANYONE permission for abortions here!”   This clerk works for the judge in this rural county.

This physician will be sending her minors to a different county if they need a bypass, and I learned a good lesson about the challenges that young and rural women face in so many parts of our country.

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