In a case that offers a glimpse of the complexity of Florida's parental-notification of abortion law, a divided appeals court this week overruled a Polk County judge and said a 17-year-old girl could receive an abortion without her mother being told.
A panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 that the teen, identified only as Jane Doe, should receive what is known as a "waiver" of the parental notification requirement. The ruling Monday reversed a decision by Circuit Judge Harvey Kornstein, who found, at least in part, that the teen was not mature enough to receive a waiver and make the decision on her own.
Appeals-court Judge Stevan Northcutt, who was joined in the majority by Judge Douglas Wallace, wrote that the teen believed her mother would banish her from the family's home if the planned abortion was revealed. Also, Northcutt wrote that teen recognized that giving birth would substantially interfere with her plans to go to college and ultimately have a career.
"Does's concerns were not the insubstantial worries of a frivolous schoolgirl,'' wrote Northcutt in a concurring opinion. "They related directly to her ability to carry out her important existing responsibilities and to accomplish specific educational and professional objectives that would determine the quality of the rest of her life."
But dissenting Judge Anthony Black wrote that the circuit judge observed the teen and described her as "cavalier" and found that she did not fully appreciate the magnitude of the abortion decision. Also, Black raised questions about the girl's maturity because she became pregnant after drinking alcohol.
"Petitioner readily admitted to succumbing to peer pressure to drink alcohol,'' he wrote. "She became intoxicated and had sexual intercourse --- an act she testified she would not have engaged in had she been sober. In fact, petitioner only 'vaguely recalls' the sex that resulted in her pregnancy; she did not indicate that she and the father were in a relationship and she does not anticipate having any future relationship with the father."
Requiring parents to be notified before minors can have abortions has long been a controversial issue in Florida. Voters in 2004 overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that cleared the way for a parental-notification requirement, and the Legislature later approved details of the law.
A large part of the legislative debate focused on the circumstances in which minors can receive court approval to avoid disclosure to their parents. While advocates of notification requirements say parents need to be involved in difficult abortion decisions, opponents have long argued that some minors could be put in danger if their parents are told.
The appeals-court ruling does not say where the minor lives, only that she is from the 10th Judicial Circuit, which includes Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties. It describes her as a high-school senior who will turn 18 early next year and says her relationship with her mother is "distant" and that she does not have a significant relationship with her father.
The ruling does not detail when the girl got pregnant. She had talked with a nurse at a clinic but had not gone to a doctor.
Wallace's majority opinion gave a detailed analysis of factors that are included in state law to determine whether waivers should be granted. Those factors include the minor's age, intelligence, emotional development and stability, credibility and demeanor, ability to accept responsibility, ability to assess the consequences of the choice and understanding of medical risks.
"Doe's testimony demonstrated that she had carefully considered the impact of an unplanned pregnancy in light of her educational and career goals and her other responsibilities,'' Wallace wrote. "After such consideration, she had reached the decision that terminating the pregnancy is the best choice for her."
But in the dissent, Black said there was "competent, substantial evidence" to support the circuit judge's decision to deny the waiver.
"It appears to me that the majority is substituting its conclusions regarding the minor's maturity for the trial court's, without the benefit of observing the tenor of the proceedings or petitioner's body language, tone of voice and demeanor,'' Black wrote. "These are assessments necessary to the determination of maturity which are impossible to glean from a cold record."