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94% who ask get abortions

A girl wants an abortion, but is afraid to talk to her parents. But, since July 2005, Florida law says she has to — or seek special permission from a judge.

Published October 19, 2006

TALLAHASSEE — Somewhere in Florida, a 16-year-old girl just found out that the state courts will let her get an abortion without telling her parents.

She is about nine weeks pregnant, and her parents don’t know it. She says they would be ashamed and disappointed if they found out.

A high school junior, she has college aspirations and fears a baby would derail her future.

But under state law since the summer of 2005, she cannot get an abortion without telling her parents — unless a judge lets her.

When she asked, a judge said no, she was not mature enough to make the decision.

But on Wednesday, an appeal court said it has overruled the first judge and said she can have her abortion. Her parents don’t need to know.

One girl’s story revealed

For years, courts stopped legislative efforts to pass laws requiring parental consent or notice, ruling that Florida’s constitutional right to privacy extended to minors seeking abortions.

So lawmakers put it to voters, who approved an amendment to the state Constitution in 2004 that requires notice to a parent or guardian before a minor’s pregnancy can be terminated.

A minor can seek a “judicial waiver” so her parent does not have to be notified.

She must show that she is mature enough to make the decision, but she does not have to prove she has the maturity of an adult. She must prove that notifying her parents would not be in her best interest.

Since July 1, 2005, when the new law went on the books, 548 young women have asked for waivers; 514 have been granted.

Abortion rights supporters say that 94 percent rate shows that those who go to court truly need an abortion. Opponents contend that it’s too easy to get the waiver.

Because of privacy issues, the public could see only bare figures about the number of cases heard.

But now comes the case of Jane Doe, whose story can be told because records of her court proceeding were left in a plain envelope on the doorstep of a Times reporter.

Conflicting beliefs

Those records identify her only as a resident of a small town. She sought help from the ACLU after discovering, the ACLU’s parental notice Web site. Since March the ACLU has helped 172 young women go to court, free of charge.

ACLU lawyer Richard Benham represented Jane Doe. She was seven weeks pregnant when she appeared in Tallahassee before Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey on Saturday, Sept. 30.

The woman found herself at an immediate disadvantage when the judge refused to allow Assistant Public Defender Hunter Pfeiffer, who was volunteering his time, to make the presentation, saying it posed an ethical conflict with his regular job.

That forced Benham, who has little courtroom experience, to present the case alone.  

The young woman said she is a good student and believes the pregnancy would impair her ability to pursue a college education.

Her parents hold strong religious beliefs concerning pregnancy that she does not share, court documents indicate. Telling her parents about the pregnancy could permanently damage her relationship with them.

Judge Dempsey, a recent Jeb Bush appointee, dismissed the petition. She said Jane Doe may not be aware of the emotional consequences of having an abortion and did not demonstrate that she is mature enough to make a decision on her own.

The judge said Jane Doe’s fear of “shame and disappointment of the parents” were not enough to bypass Florida’s constitutional right of parental notice.

But in an order released Wednesday, in a 2-1 decision, the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned Dempsey’s decision and allowed the abortion.  

Controversial process

Opponents of a parental notice law feared it would drive young women to seek back alley abortions rather than face telling angry parents.

“It takes a significant amount of courage and need to stand up in front of a judge who is likely to be a white male and talk about the most personal private aspects of your life,” said Planned Parenthood executive director Stephanie Grutman of West Palm Beach.

Grutman said some young women have encountered hostile judges who have posted their names on public dockets, derisively called them “mommy” during hearings and appointed antiabortion attorneys to represent them.
Grutman estimates that of some 16,000 teens under 18 who get pregnant in Florida a year,  7,000 to 9,000  decide to get an abortion.

The number of young women going to court has startled abortion opponents. They believe it has become far too easy to get judges to waive notice.

 “I have heard many testimonies of minors who have given birth because of the parental notification law being in effect,’’ said Robin L. Hoffman, president of Florida Right to Life.

“However, I have also spoken with others who tell me the judicial bypass is being abused.’’  

Republican Rep. John Stargel of Lakeland introduced a bill this year that would make it harder to get a waiver and stop young women from “judge shopping” in areas outside their hometowns.

Too many waivers violated the spirit of a law that voters overwhelmingly approved, Stargel said.
On Wednesday, Stargel declined to discuss the bill because he was just elected to the circuit bench in Polk County. He soon could preside over parental notice cases.

Lucy Morgan can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or


[Last modified October 19, 2006, 07:48:44]

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