D.C. Appeals Court Rules For Teen Seeking Abortion While In U.S. Illegally

Oct 24, 2017
Originally published on October 25, 2017 8:14 am

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has ruled in favor of a teenager who is in the country illegally and seeking an abortion. The 17-year-old is from Central America and has been blocked by the Trump administration from leaving the facility where she is being held so she can obtain the procedure.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Patricia Millett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit writes that the teenager has satisfied all the requirements under Texas law to obtain an abortion. She also says, "The government has bulldozed over constitutional lines" in its argument that the girl should leave the country voluntarily if she wants an abortion.

Because she is an unaccompanied minor, the girl is under the control of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. In late September, the girl obtained permission from a judge to bypass the Texas parental consent law. But administration officials have not allowed her to leave the privately run facility in Brownsville, Texas.

The latest ruling, from the full appeals court, reverses a previous decision by a three-judge panel giving the government until the end of October to find a sponsor who could take over custody of the girl. That would allow administration officials to avoid doing what they describe as "facilitating" an abortion by permitting the girl to get one. Federal attorneys have argued that they're looking out for the young woman's "best interest" and that the administration wants to "promote childbirth and fetal life."

Responding to the latest ruling, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said the case illustrates "the danger of having ideologues running the federal government." She said she is concerned about efforts by Trump administration officials to reduce access to birth control and abortion.

"This is crazy. This is what happens when people who are politically ... motivated are using their own politics to get in between women and the health care that they deserve," Richards said. "That's what's really worrisome about not only this case, but the other moves that we've seen by the administration."

Anti-abortion rights groups have also weighed in, accusing abortion-rights groups of using the case to advance their agenda.

Concerned Women for America CEO and President Penny Nance said in a statement: "Let's remember that abortion is not health care. If we want to talk about providing care for undocumented minors who cross our border, then let's be honest about the fact that there were two lives that crossed our border."

In a statement, Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America called the latest ruling a "tragedy," adding, "The United States should not become an abortion destination spot for the world."

Attorneys for the girl note that she is not asking the federal government to pay for the abortion, only to allow her to leave the facility to obtain it.

The case has been at the center of an ongoing legal battle between the Trump administration and the American Civil Liberties Union. The young woman was said to be about 15 weeks pregnant as of Oct. 20, the day a three-judge panel in Washington considered an earlier appeal in the case. Abortion is illegal in Texas after 20 weeks.

Attorneys with the ACLU, which is representing the girl, have said that her movements are being closely monitored, that federal officials have tried to persuade her not to have the abortion and that they have required her to go to counseling at an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center.

In response to the ruling, a lower court judge issued an order requiring the Trump administration to transport the girl, or allow her to be transported, to receive the abortion.

Under Texas law, the young woman must also undergo another round of counseling 24 hours before the procedure.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this next story, the national debate over immigration collides with the debate over abortion. A 17-year-old who's in the United States illegally has been trying to get an abortion for some weeks. The Trump administration resisted, but today, she is expected to get the abortion. NPR's Sarah McCammon is following the story of a woman known to us only as Jane Doe.

Sarah, good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should clarify, we're just calling her Jane Doe because she's a minor. She's under 18. What is known about her, though?

MCCAMMON: Well, we know that she came into the U.S. from Central America without her parents in early September, according to her lawyers. And she's being held in a private facility in Brownsville, Texas, that contracts with the federal government. So because she's an unaccompanied minor, she is under the control of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And Steve, late last month, she asked for and received permission from a state judge in Texas to get an abortion. That is required under Texas law because she's a minor. There's a parental consent law there. But the federal government has been blocking her from leaving that facility to get the abortion.

INSKEEP: So the federal government is acting - and I don't want to be too colloquial here, but the federal government is acting like her mom or her dad. I mean, they're saying, we are effectively in the role of a parent here, and we don't want this to happen.

MCCAMMON: Right, they have custody of her. They say they don't want to facilitate the procedure, as they put it. And we should note, Steve, the girl is - the young woman is not asking the government to pay for the abortion. That's prohibited, most of the time, under federal law. They do - she is asking to be allowed to leave to get an abortion.

In a court hearing I attended last week in Washington, attorneys for the federal government argued that they're looking out for her best interests in refusing this. And they say their goal is to promote childbirth and to protect fetal life.

INSKEEP: To promote childbirth - what do they mean by that, exactly, because that sounds a little different than protecting the life of the unborn, say?

MCCAMMON: Right, well, they talk about both. And clearly, it's the Trump administration's policy, you know, to oppose abortion rights, in many cases. And the - you know, again, the lawyers for the federal government say they see this as in the girl's best interest, that it's best for her not to have this abortion. The girl, of course, feels the opposite.

INSKEEP: And how did the court find?

MCCAMMON: Well, there's been a lot of legal back-and-forth. So at this point, a federal appeals court in D.C. has said the Trump administration can't block this young woman from getting the abortion any longer. Now, that's a reversal of an order from late last week by a three-judge panel that had said the government should find a sponsor for the young woman - the idea there, Steve, being the - someone who could take responsibility for her so the government wouldn't have to be involved. This reverses that.

INSKEEP: In other words, she doesn't have to find a sponsor. She can go ahead with this abortion should she choose to do so. Is that, then, the end of the legal battle or could we be looking at one more step?

MCCAMMON: Well, it depends on whether or not the government files an appeal. The federal government, as I understand it, still could do that. We were told that the girl received another round of counseling yesterday, as required under Texas law, and that she is expected to get the abortion today.

INSKEEP: Sarah, thanks very much for the update, really appreciate it.

MCCAMMON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon.

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