New report shows Hillsborough blocked 52 percent of abortion petitions for minors

Pinellas denied none.

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click to enlarge New report shows Hillsborough blocked 52 percent of abortion petitions for minors
Photo by Dave Decker
For those under 18 seeking an abortion in Florida, it's an uphill battle to get care. Previously, Florida required advanced parental notification. Since that law changed in 2020, a parent or guardian must submit notarized consent to physicians ahead of any abortion. But when parental consent isn’t possible, there’s a process called judicial bypass. It’s not fast, and it’s not easy, but a minor can petition Florida courts for abortion care without parental consent.

And in 2020 and 2021, a new report found that Florida judges are blocking 12% of those petitions.

The report published this morning by Human Rights Watch uses court records from 2007-2022 and interviews with legal experts and abortion providers. The 15-year trend shows denials rising as reproductive laws become more stringent.

Overall, Florida judges denied one in eight petitions across Florida in 2021. In a county-by-county breakdown, Hillsborough had the highest percentage of denials at 52%. Out of 21 petitions, Hillsborough denied 11.

Pinellas cleared all 11 of the petitions it received; other counties that didn’t deny a single petition include Lee, Miami-Dade, and Orange.
click to enlarge Hillsborough had the highest percentage of denials at 52%. - c/o Human Rights Watch
c/o Human Rights Watch
Hillsborough had the highest percentage of denials at 52%.
Margaret Wurth, a senior researcher with HRW’s children’s rights division, spoke with Creative Loafing about the key takeaways and noted that Florida’s judicial bypass denial rate has quadrupled since 2007.

“Just based on a handful of cases that we were able to access, we got a window into just how arbitrary this process is,” Wurth told CL. “Judges are deciding on young people's access to abortion care, which is time sensitive, based on grades, whether they take advanced placement courses or personality traits.”

Last year, Tampa judge Jared Smith made headlines for his decision to deny an abortion to a 17-year-old based on grades. Smith, who served as a judge during the same time as the spike in Hillsborough denials, received an endorsement from the Tampa Bay Times, but lost his reelection campaign.

An appellate panel overturned his decision and said Smith “abused his judicial discretion,” but last summer Gov. Ron Desantis created a new Lakeland-based Sixth District Court of Appeals, then appointed Smith as a judge on that appellate court at the end of last year.

“I think what our report shows is that this is not an outlier. This is what people are going through in court all the time in the state of Florida to try to be able to exercise their right to access abortion care,” Wurth says. “Many other states don't have these laws on the books.”

McKenna Kelley is a board member of the abortion access nonprofit Tampa Bay Abortion Fund and said her organization offers funds for legal services like judicial bypass when young people need help.

“That’s a huge barrier, right?” Kelley told CL. “That goes back to one of our core beliefs, which is that everyone should be able to make their own abortion decision. Judicial bypass is a huge barrier to that.”

TBAF says it funded 614 callers with abortion care in 2021, more than double from 2020. While confidentiality is critical for those seeking help from TBAF, patients can volunteer their zip code. Kelley says using that data, they’ve found that in 2021, 38% of calls came from Tampa.

With the 15-week abortion ban now in place, plus the enacted 24-hour waiting period, costs are rising, and time is running out for those needing care. Wurth says HRW is asking the Justice Department and the Biden administration to look into these denials in Florida.

“Ultimately, we believe that the only way to remedy the harm caused by this process, this arbitrary decision-making that the law grants judges, is for Florida to get rid of its forced parental consent,” Wurth says. “Young people still have support in their decision making, but they can involve whoever is best positioned to support them through the process.”

UPDATED: 02/16/223 5 p.m. Updated to make clear that some statistics came from 2021.
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