PENSACOLA, Florida – A ruling that blocked a parentless 16-year-old from obtaining an abortion highlights the hurdles to abortion access in Florida law, abortion rights advocates say.
On Monday, the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld an Escambia County Circuit Court judge's decision to block a 16-year-old girl from having an abortion without the notification and consent of a parent or guardian.
Parental notification of minors receiving abortions has long been the law in Florida, but in 2020 Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law requiring parental consent on a notarized document for a minor to obtain an abortion.
The law allows for a judge to waive the consent requirement through a process known as "judicial bypass."
The teen was 10 weeks pregnant when she sought the bypass, presumably earlier this month, though the exact timing is unclear as all details of the case are sealed except for the appeals court opinion released Monday.
Another new law signed this year by DeSantis and in effect since July bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, though it is being challenged before the Florida Supreme Court.
A three-judge panel upheld the original order by Escambia Circuit Court Judge Jessica Frydrychowicz, denying the bypass request on grounds that the teen was not "sufficiently mature to decide whether to terminate her pregnancy," according to the majority opinion.
The only information known about the case comes out of the appeals opinion with most of the details in Judge Scott Makar's partial dissent. Makar wrote his own opinion with additional details to argue the case should be sent back for another hearing before Frydrychowicz.
Makar noted the teen was almost 17 years old and without parents. She lives with a relative but has an appointed guardian. She is pursuing a GED through a program designed to assist young women who have experienced trauma in their lives with educational support and counseling.
Before deciding to seek to terminate her pregnancy, Makar wrote, the girl had recently experienced renewed trauma with the death of a friend.
She filed a hand-written form seeking to bypass the parental notification writing that she "is not ready to have a baby," according to Makar. She has no job and is still in school, with the father unable to assist her.
She also said her appointed guardian "is fine with what (she) wants to do," which Makar said should be a sufficient basis to grant a waiver in the case if other requirements of the law are met.
Makar noted the girl "inexplicably" checked the box on the form declining an attorney though free legal representation is available in these cases.
Amy Weintraub, reproductive rights program director at Progress Florida, told the News Journal that it looked like there was a breakdown of information getting to the teen, but it's hard to know for sure since details of the case are sealed.
"We don't know what happened when she went in to file for the judicial bypass, whether she was informed by the clerk staff or not," Weintraub said. "But it is a shame that she went through the process without counsel because there is a network of attorneys throughout Florida who are on standby ready to help young people at no cost."
The law requires that those seeking a judicial bypass be told they have a legal right to be provided an attorney.
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Makar noted that Frydrychowicz displayed concern for the minor's situation throughout the hearing and asked questions in a compassionate manner. Makar also noted the minor was at the hearing with "two supporters," which were a case worker and a guardian ad litem child advocate manager.
"Based on the hearing transcript and her written order, the trial judge apparently sees this matter as a very close call, finding that the minor was 'credible,' 'open' with the judge, and non-evasive," Makar wrote. "Indeed, the minor 'showed, at times, that she is stable and mature enough to make this decision.'"
While Frydrychowicz denied the decision, she left open the possibility that the teen could apply again at a later date.
"It takes a lot of gumption for a young person to file for a judicial waiver and to go through the process," Weintraub said. "This is just another example of the hurdles that Floridians are having to go through in order to get the care that they need."
Weintraub's organization Progress Florida is part of a larger coalition of advocacy originations that have formed Floridians For Reproductive Rights. The organization set up a webpage at TeenAbortionFlorida.com that provides information about seeking a judicial bypass.
The law in 2020 changed from requiring a parent to be notified that a minor was seeking an abortion to requiring a parent to consent to the abortion in a notarized document.
Weintraub said the law is designed to make it harder to get an abortion, and with the closure of Pensacola's only abortion clinic, it has become even harder.
"They want it to be harder for people to get the care they need," Weintraub said. "And if someone is in Escambia County, they already have to travel all the way across the Panhandle to Tallahassee, the nearest place that abortion care is available."
That trip would likely require a hotel stay as the law requires a consultation appointment at least 24 hours before the procedure.
Weintraub argues that access to abortion care should be viewed a normal healthcare procedure that one in four women will access during their lives.
"This is why courts matter and this is why we, as voters, have to ask better questions and be better informed about the judges that we are selecting," Weintraub said. "Judges in Florida need to be asked about their position on abortion access and young people being able to get that care."
Contact Jim Little at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Florida 16-year-old denied abortion shows legal limits, advocates say