Florida judges rule teenage girl is not mature enough to have an abortion

A 16-year-old’s request to have an abortion in the state of Florida has been denied by the courts. A state appeals court this week said she was not “sufficiently mature to decide whether to terminate her pregnancy.” Jeri Beth Cohen, a retired Miami-Dade child welfare judge, joins John yang to discuss the details of the case and what it reveals about state abortion laws.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A 16-year-old's request to have an abortion in the state of Florida has been denied by the courts in a decision that upheld a lower court ruling.

    A state appeals court this week said that she was not — quote — "sufficiently mature" to decide whether to terminate her pregnancy.

    John Yang has more details on case and what it reveals about state abortion laws requiring parental consent.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the teenager in this case is identified in court documents only as Jane Doe 22B. She was 11 weeks pregnant as of Monday. She told the court she wasn't ready to have a baby, didn't have a job and that the father of the baby wasn't able to help her.

    Court documents describe her as parentless. So she asked a judge in the Florida Panhandle for permission to end the pregnancy without the consent of a parent or guardian. Florida is one of 36 states requiring parental consent for a minor to have an abortion.

    Jeri Beth Cohen is a retired Miami-Dade child welfare judge. She retired in 2020, after 28 years on the bench.

    The question a lot of people are asking is that the law says she has to be mature enough to make this decision, and this judge said no. But if she's not mature enough to make the decision, how is she mature enough to carry this pregnancy to term?

  • Jeri Beth Cohen, Former Florida Circuit Court Judge:

    Well, that's really the problem with all these notification and consent statutes, isn't it?

    If you can't make the decision, you're not mature enough to do that, should you be bringing a child in the world — into the world? And I think what the courts are saying is, look, you got to go back and tell a parent, we're not going to allow you to do this without the consent of your parent or your guardian.

    Most of these minors, I would say nearly 100 percent of them, who feel they can go to a parent, that a parent will be receptive to helping them, will go to their parent. But it makes no logical sense.

    And, in fact, wasn't this minor showing incredible maturity by getting herself to court, by saying, look, I don't have the financial ability, I'm doing a GED right now, I'm parentless, I don't have the emotional strength or the physical strength to do this, and I am making this decision for myself, I am empowering myself to have a better life, isn't that really showing extraordinary maturity?

  • John Yang:

    As you say, you handled these cases when you were on the bench.

    Does the law give you any guidance on a standard for determining maturity? And how would you — how did you approach these cases?

  • Jeri Beth Cohen:

    Well, there's three conditions under which you can grant a waiver.

    One is that the minor is mature enough to make the decision. In those cases, I used to ask a series of questions. Have you spoken with a trusted family member or a friend or a school counselor? Have you received information on any medical consequences that may result from both a pregnancy or an abortion? Have you spoken to the father if that father was around? Why do you feel that this is not an appropriate pregnancy to carry to term at this point in your life?

    And you can sort of get a very good feel for whether or not the minor has considered the pros and cons, what her family situation is, and whether or not she's mature enough to make this decision. A lot of the — some of this is just common sense. There's no particular standards laid out in the statute.

  • John Yang:

    This is getting a lot of attention, obviously, because it comes after the Supreme Court has overturn Roe vs. Wade.

    But this really doesn't have anything to do with that. This has been the case, these have been the challenges — or highlights the challenges that adolescents seeking abortions have been facing all along.

  • Jeri Beth Cohen:

    This has been the law in Florida for quite a while.

    It started with parental notification and then it went to parental consent. So this is — does not have anything to do with the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. What I found in all those years is, when a minor can go to a parent and feels that that parent will help her make the decision, will not be judgmental, will not kick her out of the home, will not be physically abusive, that minor will go to her parent.

    I was a minor who needed an abortion in 1970. This was before Roe v. Wade. It was legal in New York. I was able to go to my mother, and she took me to New York. Was I frightened to tell her? Yes, I was. But I knew that I wouldn't be kicked out of the home, I wouldn't be physically abused. I knew that I had an understanding parent.

    And most minors, when they can, will go to their parent. These are minors that do not feel they can. And, in this case, this young woman didn't have any parents. She was under the jurisdiction of the state. And her caseworker and her guardian, in fact, supported her decision.

  • John Yang:

    What options does she — are left to her now, both in the courts? And could she, as you did, travel out of state?

  • Jeri Beth Cohen:

    Right.

    Well, the first thing is, she can go back into this trial court because the judge left that open. And, hopefully, she will get herself an attorney, her guardian ad litem will help her get an attorney, and she will go back into court and re-plead her case.

    Now, this can be very traumatizing. But that's one thing she can do. If she runs up against the 15-week abortion ban in Florida, she will have to travel out of state. And there are numerous funds around Florida that will fund that travel and help her get an abortion.

    Keep in mind, she will have to get the permission of the Department of Children and Families to travel because she's under their jurisdiction. And her window of opportunity to obtain a medical, instead of a surgical abortion, will have passed. And that drives up the cost significantly.

  • John Yang:

    Retired Florida child welfare Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, thank you very much.

  • Jeri Beth Cohen:

    Thank you.

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