How Covid-19 Has Changed Young People’s Access to Abortion in Pennsylvania
By: Christine Castro, J.D., Staff Attorney at the Women’s Law Project and ‘16-17 If/When/How Reproductive Justice Fellowship Program State Fellow

Welcome to If/When/How’s fourth annual Youth Abortion Access Week! For the past few summers, we’ve been highlighting the excellent work of youth activists, legal professionals, clinic workers, and supporters around the country who are working to make forced parental involvement laws a thing of the past, mitigate the harms done by the judicial bypass process, and ensure that young people are able to access abortion care without barriers, shame, or stigma. 

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in nationwide shutdowns, including court closures. The closing of state courts presented new challenges for young people seeking abortion access through the judicial bypass process, leaving young people and their advocates with even more barriers to navigate. Despite COVID-19, it remained essential that young people continued to have access to confidential abortion care, which included access to the judicial bypass process in every state where forced parental involvement laws are in effect

In Pennsylvania, the Women’s Law Project (WLP) worked with county courts to ensure that young people could continue to exercise their right to petition for a bypass and have access to a confidential hearing,with a judge who could permit them to consent to their own abortion. The WLP also worked with courts to adapt procedures in order to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission. And while we’d prefer a world without forced parental involvement laws (or global pandemics), one of the silver linings that has come out of the adjustments we have been forced to make in the wake of the  pandemic is that young people seeking abortion in Pennsylvania, specifically in Allegheny County in western Pennyslvania, can do remote video hearings to obtain a judicial bypass. The availability of remote hearings has dramatically changed abortion access for young people navigating judicial bypass.

Since 1994, Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act mandates that a young person (a person under 18 years old) seeking abortion get permission from a parent or guardian. Alternatively, Pennsylvania law also permits a young person to obtain a judicial bypass if they can’t, or do not want to, involve a parent or guardian in their abortion decision. However, the judicial workaround to involving a parent is nonetheless a barrier to young people’s access to abortion and is inherently cruel and unjust. 

Indeed, pre-pandemic, the court alternative to obtaining parental consent could be mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting, and a traumatic experience for some young people. Young people seeking judicial bypass must navigate that system in tandem with a host of regressive state abortion laws and regulations. Patients seeking abortion care in Pennsylvania are subject to mandatory waiting periods, state mandated lectures, and Medicaid coverage bans. Getting to an abortion clinic can be onerous for many young people, especially for those living in rural counties or lacking reliable transportation, due to the state’s shortage of abortion providers. Only 16% of Pennsylvania counties have a clinic that performs abortion, with most clinics located in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions. Young people also face many logistical hurdles impeding their access to abortion care, including minimal control over their schedules, cost of the abortion, and lack of information about their legal rights and options. 

As attorneys representing young people in judicial bypass proceedings, we knew the obstacles met by young people seeking judicial bypass during ordinary times would become more difficult, if not impossible, to overcome during this pandemic. We predicted that the COVID-19 emergency court closures would add to the confusion and delays in the administration of judicial bypass proceedings, and, in turn, compound existing barriers to young people’s access to abortion. Traveling at this time was especially difficult for young people seeking abortion without a parent. Some young people found it harder to leave the house and travel to court during COVID-19 amid school closures and stay-at-home orders, and others had been forced to postpone their abortion because they were unable to schedule a judicial bypass hearing.

In response to COVID-19, we advocated for the health, safety, and rights of young people seeking bypass by working with county courts to minimize any delay in judicial bypass proceedings and to ensure prompt and expeditious hearings remain available during COVID-19. Traveling long distances and making multiple trips could be an absolute barrier for some young people pre-pandemic, so we tirelessly worked to develop bypass protocols designed to remove some of those travel-related obstacles. 

Young people deserve bodily autonomy and the right to make decisions about their own body, including whether to carry a pregnancy to term or to seek abortion care. The bypass process does not mitigate forced parental involvement, but rather creates many additional obstacles to abortion access for young pepole.  The accessibility of remote bypass hearings during the pandemic has proven just how significant these barriers have been. And while ultimately we must work to eliminate forced parental involvement laws, remote hearings have turned out to be a radical and welcome change to the judicial bypass system in Allegheny County. Prior to the pandemic, young people seeking bypass had to travel to the clinic for the initial medical consultation, then to the courthouse for the hearing, and finally back to the clinic for their abortion. The petitioners we represent in remote bypass hearings come from all over western and central Pennsylvania, as well as Ohio and West Virginia. Many of our clients report that testifying by video is less intimidating than an in-person courtroom proceeding. WLP is also receiving more phone calls from young people all over the state with inquiries about how to obtain judicial bypass.

WLP is working to inform young people who may be in need of abortion care about  judicial bypass and our ability to potentially help them by posting relevant information on WLP’s blog and social media and by sharing information with our youth serving community partners and Pennsylvania abortion providers. Information gaps often result in young people experiencing delay in care and, in some cases, can increase their risk of ending up at crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that masquerade as healthcare facilities, but that mislead and misinform young people about abortion. In Pennsylvania, given the absence of comprehensive sex education, young people are denied basic information about their sexual and reproductive health. Some Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to fill the information gap through HB 1335, a bill that would require all schools to provide students inclusive, medically accurate, and evidence-based sex education. Yet, as Pennsylvanians continue to recover from the pandemic, the Republican-controlled legislature has failed to move the bill forward. Instead, these lawmakers have held sham public hearings to promote anti-abortion propaganda and have again diverted public funds earmarked for children living in poverty to CPCs. 

Despite ongoing attacks on reproductive rights and health from the PA state legislature, and so long as unjust abortion laws like PA’s forced parental consent remain on the books, WLP remains committed to advocating for young people’s access to abortion without barriers, delays, or stigma. If you or someone you know needs help with judicial bypass in Pennsylvania, WLP attorneys are available to provide free representation or referrals at 412-281-3048 (Spanish-speaking support is available). Learn more about judicial bypass in Pennsylvania here

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