In January of last year, a 17-year-old girl in Florida was told by a county judge that he was denying her request to receive an abortion. “Jane Doe” was a junior in high school working three jobs that her father drove her to and from. She told the court that she felt she was too young and financially unstable to be a parent, and that having a child would end her dream of joining the military. But in part because her grade point average was too low, the judge ruled that she exhibited “a lack of intelligence” and was therefore not mature enough to make this decision.
She was forced into this situation because of a Florida law, passed in 2020, requiring anyone under 18 to get consent from a parent or legal guardian before they can receive an abortion. If a parent or legal guardian isn’t available—or if the young person believes involving them will have severe consequences like abuse, loss of housing, or family alienation—they can go before a judge to seek a waiver, in a stressful and traumatizing process called “judicial bypass.” More than one in 10 young people who have abortions in Florida go through this process.
When a judge denies a young person a petition for an abortion, they are deeming them too immature enough to have an abortion—but mature enough to become a parent.
I was enraged to discover the judge’s denial of her petition. I wasn’t alone. When I drew attention to the case online, hundreds of people reacted in horror.
But a new Human Rights Watch report shows that this case was not an anomaly. According to the report, Florida judges denied more than 12 percent of young people’s petitions in 2020 and 2021, routinely blocking young people’s access to basic health care because of factors like their grades and the judge’s impressions of their demeanor. Texas has often distinguished itself from other states in the extreme cruelty of its abortion policies, but a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health found that the rate of these denials was higher in Florida than in Texas from 2018 to 2021.
Judges should not have veto power over anyone’s abortion decision. That they do is part of a larger system designed to make getting an abortion in the state as arduous, confusing, and humiliating as possible. Though abortion is currently legal up to 15 weeks of pregnancy in Florida, the Republican-led legislature has passed a series of laws to make getting care increasingly difficult. A person must undergo an ultrasound and wait at least 24 hours after an initial counseling appointment to have an abortion, which requires multiple clinic visits. Last year, Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the current 15-week ban without any exception for survivors of rape, incest, or human trafficking. The state gives over $4 million a year to fake clinics, also called crisis pregnancy centers, which use misinformation to dissuade people from getting abortions.
Florida’s forced parental consent law compounds these barriers, making the decision to go through with the pregnancy the path of least resistance. But we know from the groundbreaking Turnaway Study by the University of California that there can be dire consequences for people forced to continue a pregnancy against their will, including economic hardship that can last for years, often to a degree that renders essentials like food and housing too expensive.
Not only have lawmakers complicated the process of getting an abortion; they’ve also made sure Floridians know that they intend to punish those who don’t play by their rules—even those who aren’t getting an abortion themselves. In August 2022, Governor DeSantis removed Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren after he signed a letter stating that he would “refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.” Meanwhile, Hillsborough County, home to Tampa, denied more than half of petitions it heard in 2021—including Jane Doe’s.
Warren’s removal signaled that the governor is open to prosecuting people for ending their own pregnancies—and it paves the way for frightening new efforts to criminalize patients. We’re already seeing it happen: On January 11, the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration sent a warning to state health providers that it would “refer to local law enforcement any evidence of criminal activity that it discovers” related to abortion care. And on March 7, the first day of the state legislative session, Republicans filed a bill that would ban abortions after six weeks.
Restricting reproductive freedom is a part of the larger project of denying Floridians basic health care. My life was shaped by losing my mom to cancer when I was only 13, and I have dedicated my career to fighting for everyone’s right to the best possible care. I joined the Florida state legislature in 2018 to help ensure that. Before I ran for office, I worked at Planned Parenthood and escorted patients facing hostile protesters gathered in front of the clinic. I was also a patient at Planned Parenthood, where I was able to access affordable contraception when I needed it. But fighting for access to reproductive health care in Florida has not been easy, and this is especially true for young people—we have a serious fight ahead of us.
This legislative session, Republicans have already begun the push for even more extreme restrictions on abortion. But my colleagues and I will continue to defend reproductive rights in Florida. Everyone, including any young person, deserves the opportunity to make their own personal medical decisions without politicians or judges getting in the way. We each deserve the freedoms to be healthy, prosperous, and safe. We won’t stop fighting until that world is a reality for all.