By Linda Carroll

(Reuters Health) – Texas statistics show that judges are increasingly blocking minors who wish to terminate a pregnancy without their parents’ consent, a new study finds.

In 37 states, including Texas, that require minors to notify or obtain permission from parents before an abortion, girls who can’t ask, are afraid to ask, or have been denied can go before a judge to obtain permission to terminate their pregnancy.

After examining 18 years of records, researchers determined that the number of denials of permission by judges has been on the rise since 2014, according to the results published in the American Journal of Public Health.

“Prior to this study, the number of denials of judicial bypass has not been previously discussed in the literature,” said the study’s lead author, Amanda Stevenson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“The whole purpose of the bypass process is to protect minors from a veto of their abortion decision,” Stevenson said. “We find sometimes the process doesn’t protect them from being vetoed. It’s just the judge instead of the parent.”

Judges deciding whether a minor can bypass the parental notification rule are required to determine two things: (1) is the minor mature enough to make the decision and (2) is the bypass in her best interests, Stevenson said.

There are instances in which the judges don’t rely on these two conditions to make their rulings, Stevenson noted.

“We know it is happening and we see troubling patterns,” Stevenson said. “In one case a judge decided that based on her appearance one minor could not terminate her pregnancy because she was past the gestational age limit in Texas. The doctor said she was well below that limit. The judge denied the bypass even though this was not supposed to be grounds for denial.”

To take a closer look at the bypass process in Texas, the researchers turned to the Texas Office of Court Administration annual reports of all bypass cases filed in the state and data from Jane’s Due Process, a legal referral service founded in 2001 to serve pregnant minors in Texas.

The researchers focused on the years 2001 to 2018, which included changes in the state’s law governing judicial bypass in 2016. Among the main changes were an extension of the deadline for the ruling from two days post filing to five days post filing. The new version also removed one of the criteria for determining that a girl need not inform her parents: if notifying a parent might lead to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

Another tweak to the original law: girls now had to file their petitions in the county they lived in and their name, address and date of birth had to be included.

Between 2001 and 2015, the number of denials ranged from zero to six per year. But in 2016, the number of denials peaked at 23, falling off to 10 in 2017 and then rising slightly to 12 in 2018. Stevenson sees these fluctuations as signs of possible arbitrariness on the part of the judges.

“Judges may been responding to increased politicization,” Stevenson said.

The study shows how state laws may be impacting women’s right to choose, said Dr. Albert Wu, an internist and professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

“The results of this study, particularly the fluctuations in judicial denial rates around the time of this specific piece of legislation, suggest that what is happening is that judges are being allowed to veto adolescents’ access to abortion,” Wu said. “And this is really contrary to the intent of U.S. law. I think this is part of a pattern of state laws and regulations that are chipping away at a woman’s right to choose.”

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, online January 16, 2020.