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ESSAY | winter 2006

Jane Doe's Choice
If she can prove to a judge she's "mature," a pregnant teenager can get an abortion. If she’s deemed immature, she can go to a back alley — or have a baby.

“Your Jane Doe is here,” the secretary tells me.

In juvenile court, a Jane Doe is not a dead person: She is a pregnant teenager, under 18, who wants an abortion but doesn’t want to tell her parents about it. Ohio law allows her to have a court hearing before a judge, who can grant permission for the procedure - a “judicial bypass”- without the parental consent required in this and other states.

The young woman’s identity has to be kept confidential; that’s why we call her Jane Doe. I am a social worker in the court’s diagnostic clinic. I interview juveniles before their court appearances - Jane Does, Delinquents and Unrulies, as they are called.

The interview takes place in my closet-sized basement office. The only real bright spot here is a photo of my twin granddaughters in oversized, flowery hats. When I first started working here, I was concerned that the image might upset the Jane Does, so I considered taking it down. But I learned that it didn’t matter. These girls are desperate to get on with the abortion, get on with their lives. They are undeterred by pictures of young children.

Before she meets with me, the Jane Doe has already cleared several other hurdles. First, she visited our intake department, located in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. There she was given the phone number of an attorney, who will also serve as her guardian ad litum — someone to look out for her best interests. She was also randomly assigned to one of our courtrooms. This assignment will pretty much seal her fate.

The intake department and the court itself are open only on weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. School hours. Except in summertime, Jane Doe will have to cut class to get here. Truancy - one of the court’s major concerns for all other juveniles - becomes a moot point for these young women.

Jane Doe had to arrange a meeting with her lawyer, who’s located somewhere within our large county. A few of the kinder-hearted attorneys will arrange to meet Jane Does at a place more convenient than their offices, or at least accessible to bus lines. The lawyers realize that time is important for pregnant young women: Any delay could put them into the second trimester, making the bypass more difficult to obtain.

At the meeting with her lawyer, Jane Doe would have brought proof from a doctor confirming her pregnancy - another expense for her. (The result of a home test is not permissible.) She also had to show that she has received pregnancy counseling and knows her three options: having a baby and keeping it, having a baby and giving it up for adoption, or having an abortion.

When she finally gets to me, I start with the usual question, “How did you find out about the judicial bypass?”

“I did some research on the Internet and then I talked to a school counselor,” she tells me.

Good. She has sought out an adult for guidance. I will be asked to give my opinion to the judge on whether Jane Doe is sufficiently mature to deserve a bypass, and well-enough informed to seek an abortion without parental consent. The informed part is relatively easy: In front of the judge, she must simply be able to go over her three options, explain why she has decided on abortion and describe the abortion procedure and its health risks.

But the “mature” part is insane. Mature compared to an adult woman? To an older teenager? More mature than a teenager who has decided to give birth? Maturity is ultimately in the eye of the judge; there are no specified psychological or legal criteria.

In our juvenile court I have observed a number of judges, who fall into several categories. Each is guided by personal beliefs - not about maturity, but about abortion.

One type of judge believes that the agencies we rely on for pregnancy counseling don’t give proper emphasis to the “pro-life” viewpoint, and so provides a separate list to the Jane Does. Judges in that category require them to visit one of these places and bring back some literature as proof, then quiz the young women on their errant sexual behavior. Nonetheless, those judges usually grant the bypass.

Another kind of judge never grants a bypass, under any circumstance. This is because of the judges’ religious beliefs - which are then justified by finding the Jane Doe to be “immature.”

Other judges grant the bypass only after delivering a stern and lengthy lecture. They are well-intentioned, believing in promoting family unity. “Don’t you trust your parents, who love you and provide for you?” they might ask the Jane Does. I have heard this lecture many times. It is given regardless of the girl’s actual family circumstances - an alcoholic mother, say, or a father in prison for rape. I caution my Jane Doe not to show anger toward this type of judge, even if what he or she says isn’t true of her family. “You have to show that you are mature,” I remind her.

Finally, we have judges who grant bypasses without my testimony. Their reasoning is that any minor who can navigate through all the appointments ahead of the hearing has to be mature.

My latest Jane Doe enjoys her life. She looks forward to skating lessons, the prom, a trip with Mom to visit a college campus. She’s worried about her reputation: She is a role model to her younger siblings and has never been in trouble. She doesn’t want to upset her mother, who trusts her.

Most Jane Does say they are seeking the bypass because they don’t want to disappoint their parents. Some, from dysfunctional homes, fear that their pregnancy may exacerbate problems between their parents. Some worry that it will add stress to a parent with emotional or substance-abuse issues. A few worry that they will be kicked out of their homes. Still others are certain that their parents would support their abortion decision, but prefer to handle it themselves.

This Jane Doe looks at me with pleading eyes. “I’ve been a basket case about this,” she says. “I just can’t have a baby now; I’m not ready. My boyfriend’s been accepted to college on a football scholarship. He said he would support me, no matter what I decide. He’s a good kid. I don’t want to ruin his life too.” She starts crying, searching for tissues in her tiny handbag. “I’m not a slut,” she continues softly. “I haven’t slept around. I know we should have waited to have sex.”

“How do you think you’ll feel after your abortion?” I ask her. “Relieved,” she says. I always ask this of Jane Does, and this is their stock answer. It is the response given most often by women of all ages who have chosen to have an abortion. Relief. Earlier, we had talked about the risks. I asked her, “Which carries a greater risk, having an abortion or giving birth?” and she got it wrong. The impression many girls have is that abortion is risky but having a baby is, well, normal. In fact, while the fatality risk is 0.1 per 100,000 surgical abortions at eight weeks or less in the U.S., pregnancy carries a fatality risk of 11.8 per 100,000. And what about psychological harm? Teens suffer much more stress as a result of carrying an unwanted
pregnancy than they do from having an abortion.

Yet mandatory parental-involvement laws - designed to make abortions that much harder for teens - are now in effect in 35 states. In comparison, 34 states and the District of Columbia allow most pregnant minors to obtain prenatal care and delivery services without parental notification or consent. Furthermore, all 50 states and D.C. give all or most minors the right to obtain treatment for sexually transmitted diseases without telling their folks.

On the day of the court hearing, I tell the judge that Jane Doe is 16, a good student, involved in various sports and responsible enough to drive. I testify that Jane Doe is appropriate in conduct and demeanor. She appears forthright and credible. Her thought processes are clear and goal-directed. These are some of the pat phrases I use in the courtroom to make her appear reasoned and stable. It’s a good thing she doesn’t seem crazy or un-grounded - then she might have to have a baby.

Jane Doe is asked to describe the abortion procedure and the risks. All goes well. As predicted, this judge grants the bypass.

Jane Doe is all smiles. She thanks me and her attorney. She goes on her way looking confident; she has jumped through the last hoop. But she doesn’t know how lucky she is: She got a judge who is kind and follows the law. I’m thinking, this Jane Doe believes she is the exception here - a good girl. But I see a lot of exceptions just like her.

Meanwhile, courts whittle away at abortion rights under the guise of protecting young women from harm. If they would say, “We love the innocent fetus much more than the pregnant teen,” then at least they would be honest. In Ohio this September, another obstacle was added to the bypass steeplechase: a face-to-face talk with the doctor to learn about the procedure a day before the abortion. Another expense. Are the other professionals, who were quite capable before of explaining abortion, no longer qualified? To make matters worse, the law also now eliminates a young woman’s ability to obtain a bypass solely because she faces abuse from a parent or guardian.

The determined, middle-class young woman will still manage to do what is required to get the bypass. She will then finish school, and at some time in her future may have a baby shower and go shopping for adorable wallpaper and an educational mobile.

Meanwhile, those who can’t ace the bypass procedure, or lack financial resources, may find their options severely limited - and their burdens greatly increased. If they don’t opt for an illegal - and often unsafe - abortion, they’ll be expected to stay in school, work part-time, get to doctors’ appointments and prepare to give birth and support a child.

If only they could have shown they were mature.

Lynda Zielinski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who recently retired from her job as a licensed social worker in the juvenile court system. The Jane Doe and judges depicted are composites based on her experience.