Commentary: How Texas shames teens who seek an abortion

Do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? Dreading being called on to read out loud in class, hoping you wouldn’t mess up? The intense fear of being humiliated in front of your peers – like in those dreams where you go to school naked?

Some of those common adolescent fears — and worse — come true for adolescents seeking abortion in Texas. Teens are humiliated in court and forced to fight for their own human rights to self-determination and control over their bodies and futures – all under the guise of the state protecting them.

Texas is one of 37 states that forces teenagers under age 18 to involve a parent in their decision to end their pregnancy. Every person has the constitutional right to abortion, even some under age 18. But states can require the involvement of parents — whether it’s notifying parents or asking for their consent — if they provide an alternative option for adolescents experiencing parental abuse or absence.

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In most states, including Texas, there is a way adolescents can consent for themselves: a judicial bypass. But it means adolescents must go to court and answer very personal questions in front a judge, exposing them to humiliation and stigma by adult authority figures.

Supporters of parental-involvement laws claim they protect adolescents, who may not have the “maturity” of adults, from alleged physical and emotional consequences of abortion. But there are two problems with this rationale:

• First, abortion is safe, both physically and emotionally. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine recently confirmed decades of research showing that abortion is a very safe medical procedure and is not associated with long-term physical or emotional consequences.

• Second, my colleagues’ and my new research interviewing adolescents seeking judicial bypass, led by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, suggests that the court process exposes adolescents to humiliation, stigma, shame, and in some cases, trauma.

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As a nurse practitioner providing family planning care, I have seen adolescents who were physically and emotionally abused by family members. Yet, it was still horrifying to listen to adolescents recount being forced to reveal private details of their lives, including their full sexual history, and be humiliated and shamed in court. One adolescent told me that the judge required her to disclose “personal things she had never told anyone else.” Another said she had to “bare her life in front strangers,” including the judge, attorney, and court reporter, because she decided that ending her pregnancy was the best decision for herself, her family, and children she hoped to have in the future.

Even with a supportive attorney, one teenager was terrified that if she said “the wrong thing” in court, she would be forced to carry the pregnancy to term – or disclose it to parents who had threatened to disown her. Another young woman told me how her guardian-ad-litem, whom the court appoints to act in an adolescent’s best interest, made fun of her and laughed at her. In addition to humiliation, adolescents were shamed by judges and guardians-ad-litem who did not support abortion rights. One respondent told me that her guardian-ad-litem told her, “Abortion is never the right option.”

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In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that the strip search of an adolescent girl for suspected possession of drugs at school was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, as it caused “indignity” and was “excessively intrusive.” Emotionally strip-searching an adolescent in court is just as excessively intrusive — all in an attempt to “protect” young women.

As a researcher and nurse practitioner, I believe that an adolescent should have the right to obtain confidential abortion care. Forcing an adolescent to either involve parents who may abuse her or emotionally strip search her in court does not respect her autonomy or dignity. If we are to have a good-faith conversation about protecting young women, we need to accept what research shows: The judicial bypass process harms the very women it is supposed to protect.

Coleman-Minahan is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado College of Nursing.

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