On a hot Texas morning in 2020, G slipped her arms into a borrowed blazer, flipped up the nose ring in her septum so it couldn’t be seen and walked into the Coryell County Courthouse. It was the first time she had ever been to court. She was 17, 11 weeks pregnant and beginning to show. She was going to ask a judge for authorization to seek an abortion. Her lawyer had explained that she needed to prove that she was mature enough to make this decision. G squeezed her lips around her braces, reminding herself not to smile. She didn’t want the judge to see her as a child.
Because G was a minor, her access to an abortion was governed by the state’s “parental involvement” law. She could have either notified her mother or father and gotten consent, or she could have filed a petition in her home county, asking for what’s known as a judicial-bypass hearing. She had chosen to petition. In the carpeted courtroom, G explained that she didn’t know her father, who was investigated by Child Protective Services after being accused of molesting her when she was a toddler. Though the case was inconclusive and he denies abusing her, he eventually gave up his parental rights. G didn’t trust her mother, whom she viewed as unreliable and volatile. They had bounced among houses and boyfriends for stretches of G’s life. A year before, G had packed up her things and left.
When she discovered she was pregnant, she traveled to an abortion clinic in Austin, about 60 miles south of where she lived in Copperas Cove, a city of 37,000 where nearly everyone works on Fort Hood, the nearby military base. The clinic referred her to Jane’s Due Process, an organization that helps minors navigate judicial bypass. Ten days later, its staff found G a trained attorney. It took G a week to schedule a ride to meet with the lawyer, who asked about her grades, extracurricular activities, babysitting experience and which birth-control method she would use in the future. Then, before her court date was scheduled, the District Court judge assigned to the case recused himself. Although he didn’t say why, many judges choose not to take a case in which they might have to approve an abortion. The clerk needed to book a visiting judge. Altogether, G had spent four weeks trying to get a hearing. And now, on June 18, 2020, four months shy of her 18th birthday, G knew that her future was at this judge’s discretion…
When her lawyer asked her why she was seeking an abortion, G said she didn’t think she would make a suitable parent. She had just graduated from high school and was working as a cashier at the H-E-B supermarket chain. Her goal right now was “taking care of myself and financial needs to the best of my ability.” She had broken up with her boyfriend, Cecil, after she found out she was pregnant, concerned that he wouldn’t be there for her. Neither of them believed that they were ready to raise a child. He didn’t make enough as a brick mason to move out of his parents’ house, and for a year, G had been crashing with friends. An abortion, she believed, would be “in the best interest of the fetuses.”
She had thought about adoption, she told the judge, but it was not for her. “I don’t feel like I can grow something in my body for nine months and then physically hand it away.” When her lawyer asked her what she expected after the abortion, G regurgitated the warnings from “A Woman’s Right to Know,” a Texas Health and Human Services pamphlet that her lawyer told her to study in preparation for the hearing: She would bleed, cramp and feel emotional and depressed. G told the judge that she had made a list of pros and cons in her journal: “Cons: Killing something growing inside of me. Guilt. Constant guilt from others. Pros: Continue life without being pushed back. Freedom.”
Twins. The judge wanted to know if she had received counseling at the abortion clinic. “Did they give you, for instance, any statistics about how many women regret or don’t regret it five, 10, 12, 20 years from now?” They hadn’t.
“I’m basically standing in the stead of your parents by making this decision,” the judge continued. “In doing so, I want to make sure that I would treat this as if you were my daughter.” G tried to control the muscles in her face. She didn’t want to reveal her frustration that this gray-haired man with deep-set eyes was imagining himself as her father, whom she had feared since she was a child. The judge explained that he wanted to take the long view, focusing on her health. This is a high-risk pregnancy, G thought, or at least that’s what the clinic told her. If he cared about my health, he would say yes to an abortion. “Obviously, it’s a monumental decision,” he said. “It’s a life-changing decision.”
The judge, age 73, told G that he didn’t want to rule immediately. First, he wanted her to visit a crisis pregnancy center and have an ultrasound. He recommended two Christian organizations that counsel women to keep their pregnancies….
Hodges has ruled on about a dozen judicial-bypass cases…. He sees his role as similar to that of a jury determining whether a convicted criminal defendant “should be given life in prison or the death sentence,” he said…. He said he didn’t want to impose his personal views about abortion on G but he believes life begins soon after a fetal heartbeat, and he suggested the ultrasound, because he thought, wrongly, that it tends to make women change their minds.
G she was aware that crisis pregnancy centers oppose abortion. As she walked out of the courtroom, her lawyer tried to reassure her. “Maybe he is saying if you do this, he will grant it?” The next morning, G caught a ride 50 miles south to a crisis pregnancy center, where a woman displayed her ultrasound on a large screen and turned up the volume of the fetal heartbeats, which sounded like galloping hooves. The woman read off the supposed risks of abortion — the chance of death, the likelihood of infertility — and printed photos titled “Baby A” and “Baby B.” G left the center frightened and angry and immediately called her lawyer to file an affidavit. “I am walking into this situation thankful for all the information and care I have received,” the document read. “I am asking the court to sign an order allowing me to have an abortion.”
That afternoon, G’s lawyer called her. Hodges had denied her petition, ruling that she wasn’t mature enough to make this decision. G could appeal, the lawyer said, but G’s mind was already replaying her testimony. She had stuck to the conventions of the bypass hearing, spinning a story about her life that portrayed her as an upright woman: She was studious and diligent at work; she could save money and pay bills. Now she just wanted to do it over. Her life was a mess, a loop of false starts, deferred plans and upheaval. All she wanted was to tell the judge the truth: She wasn’t mature enough to be a mother. That didn’t happen…
POSTSCRIPT: This is one of the strongest and most heartbreaking stories of what happens when parents aren’t there to help and judges, given total control over a stranger’s life, are anti-abortion. The article is too long to include more and in any case, I can no longer access the rest. G gives birth to twins and had a very difficult time since. Her understanding of her own situation was accurate and exactly what she should have told the judge, though it may well not have made any difference. The children are being cared for by someone else, she has experienced everything she dreaded, and she’s living alone in a caravan. She’s incredibly brave and I hope she finds her feet anew. She deserves it. If you weren’t against parental consent and judicial so-called bypass, I hope you will be now, actively, even without being able to read the whole story.
SOURCE: New York Times Magazine, 29 November 2022 + PHOTO: G, by Parker Hill, Isabel Bethencourt for NYT [limited free access, then requires subscription to access]