Thanks to a draconian new law, a pregnant Texan who wants an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy now has no other choice but to leave the state. She could go to Louisiana or Arkansas, but they have tight restrictions and trigger laws in place to outright ban the procedure when Roe v. Wade is overturned. Nearby Oklahoma is not an option either, since the government already effectively outlawed abortions in May.
The only remaining neighbor is New Mexico, where patients who have the means to travel can receive care under some of the country’s most liberal regulations. But New Mexico’s clinics have limited capacity: In 2019, the state’s providers performed about 3,800 abortions, compared to more than 55,000 in Texas. For many of those unable to secure an appointment, the next closest option is Colorado, a state with no gestational age limits, waiting periods, or other controls.
But if the person seeking an abortion is under the age of 18, she may run into a problem there that she wouldn’t face in New Mexico. Colorado has a parental notification law, whereby a provider must inform a minor’s parent or guardian before performing the procedure. Many teenagers choose to involve their parents regardless of the law, but not all may feel comfortable or safe doing so. In such a situation, a teen can obtain a waiver known as a judicial bypass by relaying to a judge why it’s in her best interest not to involve her parents. Under this process, a youth who’s wary of confiding in her own family instead has to divulge details of her pregnancy in court to someone she’s never met.
“No matter what, you have to establish the fact of the pregnancy and the fact you don’t want it, and that means, at age 15, telling a weird old man judge about your sex life,” Kiki Council, a Colorado attorney who represents minors in judicial bypass proceedings pro bono, told The Intercept. A teenager doesn’t want to go on a stand and explain how “I wasn’t using condoms one time, and the consequences of that, just so my parent doesn’t find out, my parent who I know will kick me out or abuse me or harm me in some way.”
When news emerged that Roe v. Wade would be overturned, many noted that states with fewer abortion restrictions like Colorado would become safe havens for those around the country looking to exercise their decadeslong right to choose. But several liberal states have parental notification or consent laws, including Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, and Minnesota. Most states across the country — 37 — require some form of adult involvement.
These laws function as extra barriers, if not deterrents, for teenagers seeking abortion that states do not force upon people over 18 years old. Minors already face disadvantages by nature of their age: They don’t necessarily have the money to pay for an abortion, may be unable to drive to a clinic, or can’t miss school without an administrator calling their parents.
Put another way, state laws make it so that a child is more likely to endure a forced pregnancy than an adult. And yet minors may not have fully developed bodies to carry pregnancies safely, or the economic or psychological capacity to parent once a baby arrives.
State laws make it so that a child is more likely to endure a forced pregnancy than an adult.
Texas exemplifies the unique challenges minors are poised to face when Roe falls. “Youth often have irregular periods, or they might find out they’re pregnant and not know who to talk to right away, so even if they find out before six weeks, it might take them time to find a clinic or to find a trusted adult to talk with,” Rosann Mariappuram, executive director of Jane’s Due Process, a nonprofit that helps minors navigate Texas’s parental consent laws, told The Intercept. By that point, they may have missed the window of opportunity.
Once Roe is overturned, 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. What’s more, the Supreme Court decision that mandated states provide minors with an option to waive parental involvement laws could be rescinded if Roe topples. The 1973 milestone case did not establish a right to abortion for minors — that came a few years later with Belotti v. Baird. The court determined that states like Maryland, which at the time required parental permission for abortion on the basis that minors are supposedly incompetent, must guarantee a bypass option.
A major question is whether the more liberal state governments with parental involvement laws, in trying to make their jurisdictions safe places for people seeking abortion around the country, will try to repeal them. But parental involvement is one of the most controversial issues surrounding abortion access today.
“Historically, every single time there’s been any sort of ballot initiative to restrict abortion rights, it has failed,” Council said of Colorado. “The only, only ballot initiative restricting abortion access that has passed in Colorado in its entire history … is parental involvement.”
In fact, when Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed the Reproductive Health Equity Act in April to protect the right to an abortion, he included his own statement clarifying that the law did not affect Colorado’s parental notification requirement. This was never on the table, Council said, but it was still the No. 1 issue legislators fixated on. “‘This is about parental rights’ — that was the hammer that they kept banging on — like, ‘This is about me as a parent, knowing what’s going on with my child.’” A spokesperson for Polis did not reply to a request for comment on whether he supports parental notification laws.
In Michigan, where Democrat Gretchen Whitmer holds the governor’s seat but Republicans control the state legislature, minors have a harder time accessing abortion because they need their parents’ permission. An initiative called Reproductive Freedom for All is underway to get the more than 425,000 signatures needed to hold a ballot vote safeguarding abortion access, as the state is expected to see an influx of Midwesterners seeking care. It would include a legal framework to ensure that minors can get an abortion without involving parents, Merissa Kovach, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, told The Intercept.
But Michigan’s anti-abortion community is rallying against it. In an interview, Christen Pollo, spokesperson for Citizens to Support MI Women and Children, said that consent laws protect parents’ rights and ensure they can provide emotional support to their kids. And there are dangers that come with rescinding them, she argued. “One concern is that parental consent ensures that those who would abuse minor girls cannot then erase the evidence of their crimes in the nearest abortion clinic. … If a parent doesn’t even know that an abortion has been performed on their child, they don’t know what to look out for warning signs that that surgery may have been botched.”
Council believes that conservatives are trying to create “a chilling effect” by enforcing parental involvement laws. Many of her clients, she said, assume that because they can’t get abortions without notifying their parents, they can’t obtain birth control without letting them know either. “That is not true in Colorado, and I’m telling you right now that 99 percent of my clients could have prevented their abortion by getting birth control without parental consent, and they didn’t know that they could do that.”
Some conservative states, like Florida, have ramped up parental involvement requirements. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law mandating consent in 2020. And at the federal level, Republicans have introduced bills to require parental notification nationwide. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., introduced such a measure last year; it has 13 co-sponsors.
Illinois stands out as the only state in the country to enact a repeal of a parental involvement law, which went into effect June 1. The change was made possible by Democrats holding supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s office.
Illinois stands out as the only state in the country to enact a repeal of a parental involvement law.
Still, it wasn’t easy. In anticipation of Roe being overturned, Illinois has worked to expand access to abortion, but the parental notification repeal wasn’t viable until recently. Even legislators relatively supportive of abortion rights were uncomfortable with the idea of making it easier for pregnant teenagers to obtain a safe abortion.
“I think the reflexive position is, parents should know when their child is facing an unwanted pregnancy and that they would want them to go to them for help, and of course we want that for anybody who’s in that situation,” Rep. Anna Moeller, who sponsored the repeal in Illinois’s General Assembly, told The Intercept. “Unfortunately, there are young people out there who don’t have that, and so it takes a longer conversation to explain that.”
She added that critics often complain about the erosion of parental rights, a grievance that has greater salience in today’s political climate as conservatives are galvanizing a culture war over parents’ involvement in their children’s classrooms.
As a result of the parental notification repeal and other reforms, Illinois is now one of the safest places for pregnant people seeking abortion care across the country. “The timing of it is really incredible because now Illinois is becoming a haven for people from all over the South and Midwest who need abortion,” Mariappuram, of Jane’s Due Process, said. “But it’s also going to be a haven for youth.”