(Miami) – Florida legislators should reject a bill that would force adolescent girls to obtain parental consent for abortion, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee will hold a hearing on the bill at 10:15 a.m. on January 15, 2020.
Current state law requires girls under 18 to notify a parent or legal guardian before an abortion, but not to obtain their consent, or to seek a judicial waiver. Senate Bill 404 would require girls to obtain notarized written consent from a parent or legal guardian or to seek such a waiver.
“Florida legislators have a clear interest in protecting adolescent girls’ health and well-being and supporting healthy family communication, but the forced parental consent bill will do the opposite,” said Zama Neff, children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Requiring girls who may not have parental support to plead their case before a judge is intimidating and delays or prevents their getting care.”
Human Rights Watch’s preliminary research in Florida indicates that some girls fear violence, being kicked out of the home, alienated from their families, or forced to continue a pregnancy against their wishes if they involve a parent in their decision. Others may not live with or be able to locate their parents. And some adolescent girls may be overwhelmed by the many steps required for judicial review.
Human Rights Watch interviewed three Florida-based medical professionals providing adolescent health care and six attorneys with experience representing adolescent girls seeking judicial waivers, and reviewed public health studies, legal documents, and other sources.
Most adolescent girls voluntarily involve a parent or another trusted adult in their abortion decisions, whether or not the law requires it, research shows. A Florida counselor told Human Rights Watch that the vast majority of adolescent girls seeking abortion care at the clinic where she works involve a parent. Counselors said they consistently encourage girls to seek parental advice and support when they can do so safely.
An attorney who represented a 17-year-old girl who sought a judicial waiver in 2019 explained why her client could not notify a parent: “Her stepfather had beaten her repeatedly over the years, and she was terrified [that] if she did anything that could be remotely considered problematic, that he would take it out on her in a way that was dangerous to her life.”
An attorney who said she had represented nearly 200 adolescent girls seeking waivers said most of her clients feared their parents would “disown them and throw them out of the house” because they were pregnant or wanted an abortion.
Two attorneys said they had represented girls who were pregnant from rape or incest, had been removed from their parents’ care, and were under the care of the state Department of Children and Families. Under Florida law, the agency cannot satisfy the parental notification requirement. Forcing girls in these situations to appear before a judge to seek a waiver can be retraumatizing, attorneys said.
Seeking a waiver typically requires a girl to go to their county clerk’s office, find the appropriate division, request a court-appointed attorney if they do not have one, and demonstrate that they are sufficiently mature to make the decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy or that involving their parents is not in their best interest.
The organization If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice recently found that only 11 of the state’s 67 counties were prepared or knowledgeable about the process.
Public health research has shown that mandated parental involvement can delay care, leading to riskier or more complicated abortions. Delays can be especially harmful to adolescent girls, as they often suspect pregnancy later than adults and take longer to confirm a pregnancy.
Leading United States health professional associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, oppose mandated parental involvement in abortion decisions.
“Florida legislators should trust that attentive and loving parents will guide and support their adolescent daughters whatever the legal requirements, and that girls who are unable to involve their parents have good reasons for not doing so,” Neff said. “Legislators should be supporting greater access to health care, not adding barriers and hurdles that will delays girls from getting the services they need.”