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She's Under 18: How Can She Get an Abortion?

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Anonymous asks:

My girlfriend is 17, and I am 19. We had unprotected sex a few days after she finished her period. I know its foolish to not use protection, however we both decided we didn't want anything in between us. I made certain that I didn't ejaculate inside her. She might be pregnant, but right now I'm really just looking at all the options. The state we live in, Virginia, requires one parent to be notified of a decision to get an abortion. However, in Washington D.C. there are no rules saying a minor has to contact or notify her parents or anything. I've read that it is illegal to transport or drive the minor across state lines to get an abortion. Is that true? If yes, could she drive the car and I be a passenger? Or follow her in my car? If she is pregnant, I know she wouldn't want to get her abortion alone... so what is the current laws on this? I have the money to pay for it!

Heather Corinna replies:

Let's first briefly review the state of things in the states when it comes to minors and access to abortion, since you're hardly the only person who has ever asked about this. Worldwide access would be a way bigger piece, but sound information on global access can be found in this bibilography.

(If you prefer to get right to what your options are and what I think your risk here was first, scroll down the page a bit. Then you can pop back up here to find out more about the laws and policies in general.)

The National Women's Law Center has a fantastic page of legal issues regarding abortion access overall which is fantastic here. I want to outline some of what it includes about abortion access for minors, but you can take a look at that page yourself for more information.

Currently, 27 states require parental consent to abortion for women under 18. Those are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Parental consent means that a young women will have to have at least one parent or guardian give her permission in order to have an abortion, and that a doctor legally requires that permission in order to provide that woman with an abortion.

16 states restrict young women's access to abortion by requiring parental notice. Those are Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, MN, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Parental notice means that at least one parent or guardian of a young women will be notified about her abortion. She will not need their permission -- in other words, even if they say she can't have one, they cannot legally stop her from terminating -- but her abortion cannot and will not be kept private from her parents or guardians.

In both cases, there is also something called a Judicial Bypass. That is the option for a young woman to go through the courts to obtain legal permission to have an abortion without parental notification or consent. To do that, she will need to first contact a local abortion provider to get information she needs on it. Then, she will have to hire an attorney and they'll file her case. When her case comes up, it is a private hearing -- there isn't a jury or anything -- and what the judge will do is make a determination on if she is mature enough to make her own decision about her pregnancy. This blog entry from has a fantastic, simple list, state-by-state, of a young woman's first steps in seeking out a Judicial Bypass.

Obviously, going through the courts is hardly ideal. Terminating a pregnancy is a time-sensitive issue -- and providers and states differ in terms of how late in a pregnancy they will do a termination -- and sometimes court cases can take a while to come up. Even finding the money to pay the lawyer and any court fees can be tough, and the longer a woman waits to get an abortion, the more it costs, to boot. As well, some women don't feel the same about abortion at all stages of a pregnancy. For example, a woman who feels comfortable terminating at six weeks may not feel the same way about terminating at 12 or 18 weeks. Some simply will not want to have to defend their right to make their own reproductive choices for any number of reasons.

Some states also have laws or policies around a minor being transported to another state for a procedure, and/or who transports the minor. As well, in some states it is unlawful for an adult who is not a relative of the minor, or does not have parental permission from a parent or guardian, to transport a minor out of state for any number of reasons.

I personally have very strong objections to most of these laws and policies as they relate to reproductive rights. I feel they endanger young women and are also a big infringement on young women's most basic human rights. However, they exist, and while we can fight them -- and I encourage anyone who cares about sound and humane reproductive rights to do that -- until or unless we can get them struck down, abortion access is limited and defined by them whether we like it or not.

What does this mean to you, specifically? I am unclear on if it would be criminal for you to drive her out of state, either for an abortion or any other purpose. I should also note that In Virginia, the age of consent is 18, and it is not lawful for anyone over 18 to have sex with a minor in the first place, and the fact that you have already broken that law may influence your risks in this.

I think it is also possible that this section of the laws of Virginia around the age of consent could present possible issues for you per transporting her out of state for an abortion:

§ 18.2-371. Causing or encouraging acts rendering children delinquent, abused, etc.; penalty; abandoned infant.

Any person 18 years of age or older, including the parent of any child, who (i) willfully contributes to, encourages, or causes any act, omission, or condition which renders a child delinquent, in need of services, in need of supervision, or abused or neglected as defined in § 16.1-228, or (ii) engages in consensual sexual intercourse with a child 15 or older not his spouse, child, or grandchild, shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. This section shall not be construed as repealing, modifying, or in any way affecting §§ 18.2-18, 18.2-19, 18.2-61, 18.2-63, 18.2-66, and 18.2-347.

She could, however, absolutely drive herself and/or go with another friend who is also under 18 to D.C. for a termination out-of-state. She also could seek permission from one of her parents or seek out a judicial bypass so she could terminate in Virginia.

No matter what, she'd start by calling her local abortion provider first for information if, again, an abortion is what she wanted. Your local abortion provider is also the best person to get information from about all of your local laws and policies.

You say she "might" be pregnant. If it has been less than 120 hours since this risk and she wants to prevent a pregnancy, she has the option of using emergency contraception. Given you are over 18, one way you can help if she wants that is to go and get it from a pharmacy. It is an over-the-counter (though you need to ask a pharmacist for it) medication for legal adults that does not require a prescription. Or, she can get a prescription for herself through her general doctor, her sexual healthcare provider, a walk-in clinic or a hospital emergency room. It does sound like while you used condoms incorrectly, you did use withdrawal correctly. Withdrawal isn't one of the best methods of contraception -- in typical use, it's one of the least effective -- but it is a method, and if you did use it perfectly, her risk of pregnancy was probably moderate or low. I still tend to suggest emergency contraception with withdrawal, especially for young women who tend to be more fertile than the rest of us.

The risks of sexually transmitted infections are also at play here: don't forget about managing those. I'd suggest both of you schedule a full screening in the next month or two.

If it is too late for emergency contraception, or she doesn't want to use it, then she (and you) will want to first start with a pregnancy test if her period is late or it has been at least two weeks or so since her risk. If that much time hasn't passed yet, you'll both need to wait until then. When that time has come, if her test is positive, then it's time for her to consider her options, based on what she feels is best for herself and her life. You don't say anything in your post about what she wants, so I don't know if abortion is what she would choose for herself: this is her choice, not yours. So we're clear, you made your own reproductive choices when it came to deciding if you were or were not going to have a kind of sex with a risk of pregnancy, and then in choosing that, in opting not to use condoms properly. If she were to decide to remain pregnant and seek out an adoptive family, you have the option of consenting to that or not (though the fact that the sex was statutory rape may remove that right in some courts), and if she were to decide to parent, while you don't have a choice per some financial support, it is up to you whether or not you actively co-parent. But from here on out, much of the rest of these choices are hers, which is sensible since the burden of a pregnancy is also far more hers than yours.

But she should start with that pregnancy test first. I know how scary a possible pregnancy can be, but it only makes so much sense to get in a tizzy about options and limitations before a pregnancy has even been verified.

From here forward, as I mention in our Sexual Readiness Checklist, I think it's really important to make sexual choices with these policies and laws in mind, as well as numerous other considerations. Anyone will want to be sure that any choice we make in life is one we're making where we feel we can live with all the possible consequences.

Maybe you two were not aware of these restrictions before you made your choices. Whether you were or were not, you are now, and I think it's a good idea to consider them from here on out. For now, let's set aside the age of consent issue: I do that because it is simply so common for those laws to be broken that talking about them in the midst of this is going to sidetrack too much. In short though, I'd suggest you, particularly as an adult, abide by those laws.

For now, let's address the issues of pregnancy risks and presume we're talking about a sexual scenario which is within the bounds of the law.

If your girlfriend does not want to or is not ready to become pregnant AND give birth OR if she either does not want to or cannot procure a parent or guardian's permission should she want an abortion -- given the laws of her state -- then at the very least, it's not very wise for either of you (or for her, with any partner) to be ditching birth control methods or using them improperly. Properly condom use requires a condom being on for all direct genital contact, not just some.

I want to bring up something I think is important. While you two are close in age, the fact that you are a legal adult and she is a minor creates a pretty profound difference between you. You have agency and rights that she doesn't have. That means you have more freedoms, options and choices than she does, which you already did in the first place because she's the one who can become pregnant, not you. The differences that both your sex (being male) and your age present are things to give some serious thought to in your sexual choices. She's more vulnerable than you in many ways, even if in other respects there are equalities in your relationship. That doesn't make you responsible for taking care of her like a parent would, but any time we have more freedoms than someone else, that tends to mean we should shoulder more responsibilities, too.

In other words, in a few ways, it's more on you than her to say, "Hey, latex is just latex, not the Great Wall of China. I can be just as close to you with a condom on as without, and also keep anything way bigger from coming between us, like an infection, a pregnancy or the crazymaking of a pregnancy scare. I love that you want to be close to me, but closeness is more about our heads and our hearts than anything else. So for now, let's stay smart and safe. You could look into getting another method of birth control for later, like the pill or something else, and we can both also go and get tested to be sure neither of us doesn't have any infections, so eventually we can go without condoms if we still want that." Legally, you ARE the grownup here, not her (no matter what you or I think about defining adulthood based on nothing but someone's age), and so it's important that you...well, act like one. Now, ideally, you'd BOTH be bringing those kind of smarts to the table, so I also think it's a good idea to think about if both of you really are ready and able to make smart choices about sex, including in the heat of the moment, which can be a challenge sometimes. Even if we are, it's also our responsibility -- any of us, no matter our age -- to choose to only have sex with partners who are, too. Bear in mind, too, that often we look to our partners to make our best choices with us, and rely on partners to give us a reality check when we're thinking about doing something stupid, rather than enabling us in it. And many young women have a tough time being assertive about condoms if their male partners aren't on board.

I also want to make sure you know that for many women, abortion isn't casual, nor just about having the money or the access to it. While some women who terminate feel relief and at peace, some women find abortion to be emotionally difficult or traumatic. For some who know that parenting or surrendering a child for adoption are not likely best for them in many respects, they still may feel that abortion isn't a choice they want to make or feel good making, either. Being pregnant is usually a pretty big deal, no matter what choice we make about it (multiply your own fears and worries right now by about 300 and you can perhaps see how big a deal), and getting to our best choice isn't often easy or pat.

If your girlfriend is pregnant, and does decide abortion in her best choice and the one she wants to make, having someone with her, having it paid for and being able to have it may be less than she needs: those are but the bare basics. She may need extra emotional support over time, she may need help caring for herself afterwards, she may feel angry with you in some ways or not want you around for a while, she may find that either a pregnancy and/or an abortion makes her feel differently about sex than she used to. She may want to take her time making up her mind, and talk through all of her possible options with you and/or others. What she wants may be in conflict with what you want, or she may even decide that she doesn't want you involved in any of this at all. These are all things to bear in mind when talking about abortion for her or, in my book, for any woman when you're a man.

I am absolutely supportive of male partners doing what they can to help out, so if you're here asking me about this after talking with her about her feelings and what she'd want, and seeking out information based on what she has voiced, that's fantastic and very caring. But if you two haven't initiated this together, I'd suggest you talk with her first before doing any more research on her behalf as again, this is her (potential) pregnancy. And no matter what happens with this scare, I hope that you'll give some deep thought to what I have said here about future sexual choices, initiate discussions with her about them, and that both of you make wiser choices from here on out which are as aligned as possible with what you both can handle, what you both want in the big picture and what really is best for the both of you at this point in your lives.

Here are a few more links to grow on:

written 11 Mar 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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