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Palm Beach County Judge Rules 13-Year-Old Florida Foster Child May Obtain Abortion; State Officials Appeal

May 3, 2005

Palm Beach County, Fla., Juvenile Court Judge Ronald Alvarez on Monday ruled that a 13-year-old Florida foster child who has been seeking an abortion may undergo the procedure, but the Florida Department of Children & Families appealed the decision, again blocking the procedure, the Miami Herald reports (Marbin Miller, Miami Herald, 5/3). The girl, who has been in foster care for about four years and is known as L.G. in court documents, learned of her pregnancy about two weeks ago. After undergoing counseling, she told her caseworker that she wanted to have an abortion, which the caseworker had scheduled for April 26. However, DCF filed an emergency motion to halt the procedure, arguing that the girl is too immature to make an informed decision and that the agency has the authority to prevent the abortion from taking place. The girl's attorneys argued that the state's privacy law gives minors the right to decide if they want an abortion. Alvarez last week granted DCF's motion, ruling that the state should evaluate the medical and emotional risks associated with L.G. having an abortion or carrying the pregnancy to term. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County on behalf of L.G. then filed an emergency appeal of Alvarez's decision in Florida's 4th District Court of Appeal, saying that neither DCF nor the court had a right to intervene in the case. The groups also asked the court to act quickly on the issue because abortion procedures become more risky the later in pregnancy they are performed, and L.G. already is in her second trimester of pregnancy, according to her attorneys. On Thursday, the 4th District Court of Appeal granted the organizations' request to expedite the appeals process (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 5/2).

Ruling Details

Alvarez on Monday ruled that L.G. has a constitutional right to an abortion, despite the state's objections, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports. "Legally speaking, it's not a difficult decision to make," he said, adding, "Morally speaking, it's a very difficult decision for this court to make. ... But I'm not here to make the moral decision. I'm here to make the legal decisions" (Cote, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 5/3). Alvarez also ruled that L.G. is competent to make the decision about obtaining an abortion, according to ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon (Goodnough, New York Times, 5/3). Alvarez also cited testimony stating that 13-year-old girls are three times as likely to die from carrying a pregnancy to term than from having a legal abortion. "Delaying the child exercising her constitutional right ... would increase the risk to the child of her losing her life," he said (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 5/3).

Appeal Details

DCF on Monday immediately appealed Alvarez's order, automatically delaying an abortion for L.G., the Herald reports. However, at the request of L.G.'s attorneys, Alvarez lifted the stay and ordered DCF to transport L.G. to a medical clinic to obtain an abortion. But DCF officials refused to drive the girl to a clinic, according to Legal Aid Society attorney Maxine Williams. Alvarez then signed an order allowing the girl's attorneys to transport her to a clinic for an abortion. While the lawyers were on their way to pick up L.G., DCF again appealed Alvarez's order and received an automatic stay from the 4th District Court of Appeal, according to the Herald. Because the second stay was granted late in the day, L.G.'s attorneys had no time to respond to the ruling, and L.G.'s scheduled abortion was delayed, Williams said. She added that they would attempt to take L.G. for an abortion again on Tuesday (Miami Herald, 5/3).

Court Details

According to court recordings, L.G. in a closed hearing with Alvarez last week said it makes "no sense" for her to have a child, adding, "I don't think I should have the baby because I'm 13, I'm in a shelter and I can't get a job" (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 5/3). She also said, "I think if I want to make the decision, it's my business and I can do that," adding, "Since you guys are supposedly here for the best interest of me, then wouldn't you all look at the fact that it'd be more dangerous for me to have the baby than to have an abortion?" (Vallis, National Post, 5/3). However, in court on Monday, DCF attorney Jeffrey Gillen said that L.G. is "not of sufficient maturity to make the choice at all" and that having an abortion would cause "irreparable and irrevocable consequences." Williams said, "The department's efforts here, without any authority, is infringing on her right to exercise her constitutional rights," adding, "That, in fact, is going to cause her irreparable harm if we delay this any more" (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 5/3). In a statement on Monday, DCF spokesperson Marilyn Munoz quoted a state law, saying, "In no case shall the department consent to sterilization, abortion or termination of life support," adding, "The DCF has the custodial responsibility to do what is in the best interest of the child, as state law requires" (Miami Herald, 5/3).

Abortion Debate

"What's going on here is part of a pattern we've seen in the state of Florida, with the state becoming involved when ideological issues are at stake," Diana Kasdan, an ACLU attorney who consulted on the case, said, adding, "They're letting their political agenda take priority over the welfare of a teen." Stephanie Grutman, executive director of the Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said, "This young woman's situation reminds us how close each of us are to losing our right to choose," adding, "It really shows how bureaucrats can play politics with our lives and our health." Randall Terry, former director of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue, in a letter to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) on Friday said, "If she (L.G.) is permitted or pressured into having this abortion, it will be one more mountain of guilt that she will have to carry on her young back" (National Post, 5/3). "It's not just about the life of the baby," Larry Klayman, a Florida attorney with the watchdog group Judicial Watch, said, adding, "It's about the emotional well-being of this child later in life. She may live to regret it" (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 5/3).

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Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, search the archives, and sign up for E-mail delivery at www.kaisernetwork.org/dailyreports/repro. The Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, by The Advisory Board Company. © 2005 by The Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.

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