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Undocumented teen in legal limbo over her right to an abortion

A pregnant, undocumented 17-year-old girl obtained a court’s permission to get an abortion, but due to policy change by the Trump administration, officials detaining her in Texas are refusing to take her to her appointment. Now an appeals court will hear her case on Friday. Lisa Desjardins speaks with Renuka Rayasam of Politico about what’s at stake.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

      We turn now to a dramatic legal case making its way through the federal courts over whether a young undocumented immigrant has a right to an abortion. Our correspondent Lisa Desjardins has more.

  • Lisa Dejardins:

      Last month, U.S. border officials apprehended a 17-year old girl at the Texas border crossing from Mexico.  Pregnant, she asked to get an abortion and obtained a court’s permission.   But due to a policy change by the Trump administration, U.S. officials detaining her refused to take her to her appointment.  Her abortion is currently on hold pending an appeals court hearing tomorrow. For more on this, we’re joined by Renuka Rayasam.  She covers health care for Politico and joins us now from Austin. Renuka, thank you so much for joining us. Now, this young woman, known as Jane Doe, she’s 15 weeks’ pregnant right now.  Can you tell us more about her precise situation?

  • Renuka Rayasam:

     Sure.  Thank you for having me, Lisa. So, as you mentioned, this girl, she is from Central America.  She crossed the border into the U.S. in September, and had an official health — had an initial health screening, as all undocumented minors do when they cross the border, and found out she was pregnant only when she arrived in the country. And so she had an initial follow-up appointment today.  It was the first time that it was actually confirmed that she was 15 weeks’ pregnant.  And here in Texas, abortion is banned pretty much after 20 weeks, so she’s in a bit of a tight situation here.

  • Lisa Dejardins:

      Now, some people might be surprised that unaccompanied minors in this country are actually overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. What is the argument by HHS and the Trump administration here for blocking an abortion from this young woman?

  • Renuka Rayasam:

      They have made a couple of arguments. So, in this specific case, they have said, we’re not blocking her right to have an abortion, but we’re just not going to facilitate it.  And they said, we don’t have to process the paperwork to let her out of our facility.  She could easily go back to her home country in Central America or find a sponsor in the U.S. And they have also said, as long as she’s in an HHS shelter — so, this is actually a federally funded shelter that is under contract with HHS — she has to play by our rules, and our rules are that we don’t want her to have an abortion.

  • Lisa Dejardins:

      And you mentioned our rules.  This is actually a change in how HHS administers policy for these young undocumented immigrants, right?

  • Renuka Rayasam:

      Absolutely. So what came out in court documents is that, since March, since the Trump administration started taking over this department, they have put in place a new policy, and they have basically blocked all abortions for unaccompanied minors in federally funded shelters. And they have gone so far as the director of the Office of Refugee Settlement, which is the department that is responsible for these minors, has sent these girls instead to crisis pregnancy centers.  The director has personally gotten involved in one case in San Antonio.  He visited a girl in a shelter and tried to talk her out of an abortion. I have heard from sources that he’s made many phone calls to these girls and basically tried to talk them out of getting an abortion.

  • Lisa Dejardins:

    Renuka, the right to an abortion is something established by the Supreme Court in this country.  What are these lawyers for these young women saying, and how does it fit into court precedent as we know it?

  • Renuka Rayasam:

      The ACLU is arguing that the administration here is placing an undue burden on this woman’s right to have an abortion. And, as you mentioned, the Supreme Court has upheld that right several times and has said that the government can’t place an undue burden here.  And they have said, you know, just because she’s an undocumented minor doesn’t mean she doesn’t have constitutional rights, such as the right to an abortion.

  • Lisa Dejardins:

      But the argument is that, because she’s undocumented, she doesn’t have the same rights as the rest of people in America.  Right?

  • Renuka Rayasam:

      During oral arguments — I mean, they lasted for about 45 minutes.  And the federal judge really pressed the administration on this, and the federal judge asked straight out, do you think that undocumented minors have constitutional rights? And the administration lawyers weren’t really clear on that point.  And the Supreme Court has said that undocumented minors have constitutional rights, but the administration lawyers weren’t very clear on whether they agree or not with that statement.

  • Lisa Dejardins:

      Renuka Rayasam, thank you so much, joining us from Austin, Texas.

  • Renuka Rayasam:

      Thank you for having me.

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