Federal Court Grants Immigrant Teen Access to Abortion — For Now

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A Tuesday decision by the full U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has granted a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant in federal custody the right to access an abortion. It's the latest switchback in a whirlwind case — one that's shown a major (albeit predicted) shift in how the Trump Administration treats abortion.

"Surely the mere act of entry into the United States without documentation does not mean that an immigrant’s body is no longer her or his own. Nor can the sanction for unlawful entry be forcing a child to have a baby," wrote Circuit Judge Patricia Millett in the afternoon decision.

The D.C. appeals court made a 6-3 ruling against a decision made last Thursday by a three-judge panel of the court, one that blocked the teen's abortion unless she found an adult to take her out of federal custody by Oct. 31 (a task the full appeals court says places an "undue burden" on the teen). Tuesday's ruling void that ruling, punting the decision back to a lower court that approved her abortion last Wednesday.

The teenage girl, called "Jane Doe" in court documents, originally immigrated into the U.S. by herself in September. The federal government then placed her in a Brownsville shelter for undocumented minors, where she was granted access to health care, including "family planning services" and "access to medical reproductive health services." Shortly after moving in, Doe discovered she was pregnant.

On Sept. 25, Doe received the required sign-off from a judge to obtain an abortion (a requirement for minors in Texas who lack parental permission to get an abortion) — but this irked her federal guardians. Instead of allowing her to go through with the procedure, staff at the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement followed their newest marching orders from the department's director: No more abortions for undocumented minors in federal care.

"Defendants prohibited me from traveling to the health care center for the examination, counseling, and abortion," wrote Doe in a Oct. 5 legal declaration. "I feel like they are trying to coerce me to carry my pregnancy to term."

That's when the American Civil Liberty Union got involved, pushing her case up the country's judicial ladder. Lawyers are especially concerned with a timely ruling, since Doe's pregnancy continues to advance. She's currently about 16 weeks pregnant, and Texas cuts off abortions at 20 weeks.

"Every step of the way, the Trump administration has shown their true colors in this case. It's clear that their anti-woman, anti-abortion, anti-immigration agenda is unchecked by basic decency or even the bounds of the law," said ACLU lawyer Brigitte Amiri in a statement. "No one should have to go to court to get a safe, legal abortion."

Tuesday's decision isn't cemented — it's possible the government may want to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the feds have yet to release a statement in response.

"Today’s decision rights a grave constitutional wrong by the government. Remember, we are talking about a child here. A child who is alone in a foreign land," wrote Circuit Judge Milett in the Tuesday decision.

The court's ruling, she concluded, "affords this 17-year-old a modicum of the dignity, sense of self-worth, and control over her own destiny that life seems to have so far denied her."

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