Health

Alabama’s Abortion Law Puts Minors On Trial And Gives Their Fetuses A Lawyer

CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against Alabama this week in an attempt to overturn what the group suggests may be the most radical parental consent law in the country. Under a new law that went into effect this summer, minors who are seeking to bypass their parents’ consent to get an abortion are essentially put on trial. The state is allowed to appoint a lawyer for their fetus and call witnesses to testify about the teenager’s character.

“This law aims to shame a young woman into not having an abortion,” Susan Watson, the executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, told AL.com. “Why should she be put on trial and treated like a criminal for a constitutionally protected procedure?”

Supreme Court precedent has historically dictated that states are allowed to require parental consent for minors’ abortions as long as there’s an alternate process in place for the teens who may not be able to ask their parents’ permission. That could include a teen from an abusive household, a foster child who doesn’t have legal guardians, or a girl who’s become pregnant because someone in her family has raped her. This process is called judicial bypass.

But under Alabama’s new law, this bypass process is significantly more difficult for teens. In its suit, the ACLU contends that the new law “radically alters the judicial bypass process in a wholly unprecedented manner that goes well beyond any judicial bypass statute that has ever been upheld by a federal court.”

Now, the state is allowed to call teachers, parents, neighbors, boyfriends, or peers to testify against the teenage girl, even if that means disclosing her pregnancy to people in her life who didn’t previously know about it. Alabama may also hire someone to represent the fetus’ “best interests” in court. So the new law ultimately ensures that a minor who needs an abortion and isn’t comfortable telling her parents will be up against the whole legal system. She’ll be forced to defend herself against a district attorney who’s arguing she’s unfit to make this decision on her own.

This isn’t a hypothetical situation; we’ve already seen other states arguing that minors shouldn’t be allowed to exercise their abortion rights for that reason. Last year, the highest court in Nebraska ruled that a 16-year-old in foster care — who was in court asking for permission for an abortion because she didn’t have parents — wasn’t “mature” enough to choose an abortion and should be forced to continue with the pregnancy.

But it gets worse for the teenagers in Alabama. Even if the judicial bypass is granted, the law allows the state to file an appeal. It’s possible that the legal process will be dragged out for so long that the teen will hit the legal limit for abortion — Alabama has a 20-week ban on the books, cutting off access even before Roe v. Wade officially does — and be unable to end the pregnancy in the state.

“At best, this law destroys the confidentially of any teen participating in the judicial bypass process. At its worst, this law will force a teen to resort to an illegal and unsafe abortion; to seek parental consent, even if it’s not safe for her to do so; or to have a child against her will,” the ACLU says in a press release regarding the legal challenge.

Abortion opponents typically claim that parental notification and consent laws are important to keep teenagers safe, preventing them from making a big decision without input from their families. It’s become an incredibly common policy; according to the Guttmacher Institute, 38 states require parental involvement in teens’ decision to have an abortion. Three of those states require adolescents to get both of their parents’ consent.

But medical experts actually oppose these type of laws, pointing out that research shows most teens already involve their parents in their decisions about pregnancy and abortion. Physicians for Reproductive Health points out these requirements simply end up delaying time-sensitive medical care, as well as penalizing the teens who don’t have a good relationship with their family members. “The young women who choose not to tell a parent do so for a number of good reasons, including fear of abuse or abandonment, or because they don’t live with their parents,” the group explains. “When the state interferes with minors’ decisions about abortion or birth control, it forces the teen to choose a parent over another trusted adult who might be better suited to support her.”