For Abortion, Some Teens Cut School, Go to Court

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Reflective teen

Credit: Barta IV on Flickr, under Creative Commons

NEW YORK (WOMEN’S ENEWS)–Eleven years ago, the burdens of Natalia Koss Vallejo’s junior year of high school extended far beyond the lengthy college admissions process.

She also had an unplanned pregnancy.

At 17, Koss Vallejo had no way of knowing where life was about to take her; in front of a judge, demanding an abortion, without her parent’s knowledge.

“I really didn’t feel ready to have a child,” Koss Vallejo, now 28, said in a phone interview from her home in Milwaukee. “I was uncomfortable with the idea of my parents knowing something I was doing that was intimate [and] personal to me. I chose the judicial bypass rather than tell them.”

Koss Vallejo lives in Wisconsin, one of 38 states that require parental consent. Teens in these states who wish to obtain an abortion without their parents’ knowledge must petition the courts for permission.

The petitions don’t always work. One well-publicized case occurred in 2013 and involved a 16- year-old Nebraskan identified as Anonymous 5. She refused to tell her foster parents she wanted an abortion because she was afraid of being kicked out of the home. The judge ruled against her petition, saying she was “not sufficiently mature” to have an abortion. In a phone interview, the teen’s attorney, Catherine Mahern, declined to comment on the status of the fetus she was carrying but she did say that Anonymous 5 is doing “fine.”

In three states–Texas, Florida and Illinois–backlogged courts can work in a teen’s favor. Once a petition is filed, the judge has 48 hours to block a petition. After that, a bypass is automatically granted. If a judge denies a teen’s abortion request in these states–on grounds that the adolescent is not sufficiently “mature” or “well informed”– the minor’s final option is to appeal the decision through a higher court.

Planned Parenthood Advice

When Koss Vallejo realized she was pregnant, she contacted Planned Parenthood for advice. Counselors there told her judicial bypass would be her only opportunity for terminating the pregnancy.

Before she saw a judge she had three court-required trips to the doctor to determine the age of the fetus. She scheduled these Planned Parenthood visits during school, hiding in the bathroom stall between classes. “I would get called back from the doctor’s office when I was in English class,” Koss Vallejo said. “I had to run out and take a call.”

Since she didn’t have a car, she relied on friends for rides. “I had to cut class and lie to my parents to get to my appointments.”

At one check-up, when she was shown the ultrasound, Koss Vallejo said she felt humiliated, yet undaunted. “It was unnecessary. I looked at a black piece of paper with a white speck on it, the shape of a lima bean. They reinforced what I already saw: That this is not a life.”

During the month she spent going to appointments she carried out her normal after-school activities, which included a 30-hour a week commitment to ballet, to hide what was going on from her parents.

In the end, her family did find out and today Koss Vallejo doesn’t know why she was so determined to keep her parents in the dark.

“Looking back, even I don’t know how I kept this all a secret from my parents,” she said. “They would have supported my decision to have an abortion, and they couldn’t understand why I didn’t go to them for financial and emotional support.”

But at the time, when she was going through the judicial process, Koss Vallejo dreaded letting her parents know because she feared their disappointment.

Deena Kalai has witnessed firsthand the emotional ramifications a lurking court date can bring to an adolescent. As a volunteer attorney at the nonprofit legal representation firm Jane’s Due Process, in Austin, Texas, she has represented pregnant teens who need help through the bypass process.

“It is very isolating,” Kalai said in a recent phone interview. “For a teen girl it can be terrifying. They are worried on what the outcome will be and they’re worried whether someone will find out.”

Long Process

The process from locating legal help to getting the court’s decision takes at least two months, all the while teens are conscious that the longer they wait, the more difficult it will be for them to attain the procedure and the harder it is to keep their pregnancies secret. Some struggle with the logistics of making appointments, arranging transportation to clinics and the court house.

“It is extremely stressful for the girl, every hour counts,” Kalai said.

Kalai said her youngest client was 15 and scared of being kicked out and disowned by her family if they found out. “There are not a whole lot of options for a lot of these girls,” she said. “It breaks my heart. I am glad I am there to help them, but I think it is really sad they have to go through that process.”

On the day of the final decision, when she would face the judge for the one and only time, Koss Vallejo’s ex-boyfriend, by whom she’d gotten pregnant, drove her to the Wisconsin courthouse. She was greeted by a case manager, who she had never met, who advised her to create a brief biography of herself.

Similar to a college resume, Koss Vallejo wrote that she was in ballet, a bilingual student, with a high GPA who lived in an upper-middle class household. As Koss Vallejo stood braced in front of the judge with the case manager beside her, she said she was filled with angst and anxiety.

“I was just so scared,” Koss Vallejo said.

Considering Unsafe Alternatives

As she waited for the judge to rule she contemplated inducing the procedure herself using an herbal concoction she found online if she was not granted the bypass. “I would rather have died than had a baby,” Koss Vallejo said she thought at the time.

Reading off her file, the judge looked up at Koss Vallejo and asked “Is this really what you want to do?” and she answered “yes.” The judge glared down at his papers and said “Okay you’re done.” A month long process ended “quickly,” as she was granted the bypass.

In a race against the clock, Koss Vallejo got the abortion a day prior to her second trimester. She raised the money for the $750 procedure by selling her prom tickets and pawning clothes, caps, jewelry, posters and furniture.

Had the judge ruled against her, Koss Vallejo said she had decided to carry out the abortion herself, even if meant her health and life were at risk. “I could have landed in the emergency room, but I didn’t care. I was ready to die, to do whatever it took to get the abortion.”

Six months after the procedure, she detailed the account in her diary.

The entries, noted an angry young girl, who felt “confused,” “cheated” and “ambushed by a life that no one prepared her for,” according to a version she published in 2014 on the abortion support website Exhale, where she works as a reproductive health advocate.

A year later, her mother found the diary buried beneath ballet slippers and dirty laundry in her daughter’s bedroom.

Later that afternoon, Koss Vallejo’s mother, “pained” and “shocked” by her daughter’s experience, went to the grocery store and cried in front of a woman from her local book club.

“They were heartbroken that I didn’t go to them for help,” Koss Vallejo said. “My only regret about the situation is how much I hurt them by keeping it a secret.”

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