Wednesday, April 27, 2005

FROM THE ST. PETERSBURG TIMES:

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- The state's social services agency went to court to block a 13-year-old girl who is pregnant and living in a state shelter from having an abortion, and the girl wants to challenge the judge's decision.

The ACLU filed an emergency appeal on Wednesday asking a judge to overturn the ruling that would essentially force the girl to become a mother, said Howard Simon, the organization's executive director for Florida.

The girl, named L.G. in court documents and described as a longtime ward of the state, learned she was pregnant two weeks ago and had planned to have an abortion Tuesday. Her caseworker arranged for transportation and help for the girl.

But the state Department of Children & Families asked a Palm Beach County juvenile judge Tuesday morning to block the abortion. The agency argued that L.G., who is 13 1/2 weeks pregnant, was too young and immature to make an informed medical decision, according to the appeal filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Florida does not have a parental notification law. In fact, in 2003 the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a parental notification law passed in 1999 was unconstitutional, because it violated the right to choose an abortion that was established in Roe v. Wade.

When she learned of her pregnancy, L.G. received counseling at a women's health clinic, considered her options, discussed her decision with responsible adults and understood the abortion procedure and accompanying medical risks, the appeal said. She also has never been institutionalized and is not being treated for mental or psychological disorders.

Nevertheless, the state of Florida has decided, in loco parentis, that they are legally required to consent to the abortion, and -- inexplicably, since the Florida Supreme Court specifically ruled that a minor does not need parental notification or consent to choose an abortion -- a spokeswoman for the Department of Children & Families said, "If a child in our care requests to have any procedure prohibited under Florida statute, we cannot give consent. ... It's not our decision. We stand in different shoes. We're held to a higher accountability."

Huh? L.G. has not requested a procedure prohibited under Florida statute. And the DCF has not been asked to give consent. On the contrary, they have proactively sought and obtained a court injunction to prevent L.G. from doing what no one asked for their consent to do. They are right that it's not their decision; although it's hard to understand how they figure that forcing a 13-year-old girl to go through pregnancy and childbirth is a "higher" anything.

The DCF's Republican supporters insist that -- despite the reality that L.G.'s decision to end her pregnancy was made freely, without coercion, after being counseled and informed of all her options, and after thinking about it for some time -- she is not "mature" enough to decide to have an abortion.

Rep. Jeffrey Kottkamp, a Cape Coral Republican sponsoring the parental notification legislation, said the case begs the question: "Does this minor have a legal capacity to understand all the consequences?"

"If she's not old enough yet to decide if she should have a tattoo, or drive, or vote, how in the world is she old enough to make such an important decision on her own?" Kottkamp said.

Well, Mr. Kottkamp, if L.G. does not have a legal capacity to understand all the consequences of ending a pregnancy, how would she have a legal capacity to understand all the consequences of continuing a pregnancy and giving birth to a baby? If she's not old enough yet to get a tattoo, or to drive, or to vote, then how in the world is she old enough to be a mother? How would she have the legal OR the emotional capacity to understand all the consequences of giving up a baby for adoption?

The point is, a 13-year-old child is not old enough to become pregnant in any sense other than the biological. A 13-year-old is not old enough to give informed consent to sex, or to fight off a rapist, or to resist emotional manipulation by an older boy or man who promises to give her love in exchange for sex. A 13-year-old is not old enough to have a baby, raise a baby, or give up her parental rights to a baby. A 13-year-old is not old enough for any of these things.

And having said all this, and knowing it is true, we are still left with the reality that a 13-year-old is, in many cases, old enough biologically to conceive a child and to become pregnant. So, given the fact that, once pregnant, choices must be made no matter what, the only issue remaining is who gets to make those choices. Since the devastating consequences of pregnancy when you are only 13 years old are entirely and completely the girl's to have to live with, and no one else's, the most elementary sense of justice would lead to the conclusion that the decision about how to handle a pregnancy should be hers as well -- after the caring adults in her life have talked with her, counseled her, told her all her options, explained to her the possible consequences of each of those options, and most of all, given her the love, respect, and support she needs to make a decision that, in the final analysis, only she can make.

When all is said and done, there are two levels to a situation like this: the level of the law and the level of the heart.

"No DCF regulation or state law can override a constitutional right as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court," Simon said. "But putting aside the legalisms, forcing a 13-year-old to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term against her wishes not only is illegal and unconstitutional, it's cruel."
Amen to that.

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