Earlier this month, Jaime Burnside called an attorney in Texas to help her teen-age son. His girlfriend was pregnant and wanted to have the baby, but her parents wanted her to have an abortion.
It’s the kind of case that invigorates the Texas Center for Defense of Life, which has handled three similar situations in the two years since it was founded. “Parents think they’re making a decision for their daughters like pulling a tooth or getting their tonsils out,” says Stephen Casey, who spoke to the boy’s mother and agreed to file suit against the girl’s parents. “But now that the girl is pregnant, the parents become grandparents and they can’t make a decision for the girl about her unborn child.”
A judge in Houston agreed. Last week, the parents of the 16-year-old girl — identified as R.E.K. in the lawsuit — said they would comply with an injunction that prohibits them from forcing their daughter to end her pregnancy. According to the lawsuit, the divorced parents also agreed to let the girl continue to use her cell phone and drive her car, both of which apparently had been confiscated after she announced that she was pregnant.
The girl’s mom tried to talk her daughter into an abortion, saying she would be “making the biggest mistake of her life” if she had the baby, and the girl’s father texted her that she “needs an ass whoopin’,” according to the lawsuit. The girls’ parents have said the allegations are not true. The parents’ attorney could not be reached.
The situation is unspooling not long after Texas cut funds for family-planning services. Nor does the state provide comprehensive sex education in schools, preferring to emphasize abstinence. “We know teens have sex so it would be nice to prepare them to make good decisions,” says Elizabeth Nash, who tracks states’ reproductive rights legislation for the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research group. “Being a teen mother is a very hard road to hoe.”
Burnside can attest to that first-hand. When she was 15, she got pregnant with Evan Madison, the 16-year-old father-to-be in the case. Last month, R.E.K. took a pregnancy test at Burnside’s home to confirm she was expecting. The positive result left Burnside dumbfounded. “One of the first things Evan said to me was, You can’t get mad. You had me when you were a teenager,” says Burnside, 33, who works at the local sheriff’s office. “I said I wasn’t mad, but it changes everything.”
Burnside dropped out of school and got her GED, then went to college. She held down two jobs. “You have to work a lot harder,” she says. “You have another human being depending on you. They are not going to understand the magnitude until they’re living it.”
The baby is due Sept. 16. According to Evan, he and R.E.K. — they began dating last summer — knew right away they would have the baby. “We’ve always been against abortion,” says Evan, who wants to become a welder (R.E.K. wants to attend nursing school). “As soon as we found out she was pregnant, we knew we wanted to keep it.”
Contrary to the impression that most teens choose abortion, most girls under 18 who get pregnant choose to stay pregnant: 57% of these pregnancies result in babies compared to 29% that end in abortion (miscarriages account for the rest). But just as support for reproductive rights varies widely across the nation, so too do the preferences of teen girls. In Texas, for example, 72% continue their pregnancies while just 12% end them. In California, on the other hand, 50% choose birth compared to 36% who opt for abortion.
Texas is one of just three states, in addition to Oklahoma and Virginia, that requires notarized parental consent for a daughter under 18 to have an abortion. But even in those states, girls can bypass their parents’ wishes, according to a Guttmacher summary, which notes:
“Moreover, because the Supreme Court has ruled that states may not give parents an absolute veto over their daughter’s decision to have an abortion, most state parental involvement requirements include a judicial bypass procedure that allows a minor to receive court approval for an abortion without her parents’ knowledge or consent.”
Yet there are no clear rules in a situation like R.E.K.’s. Girls can try to reason with their parents, but ultimately, both sides may end up facing off in a courtroom. “Roe v. Wade goes both ways,” says Greg Terra, president of the Texas center, “and choice goes both ways. A few of these situations can resolve without filing suit. But even though a girl has a legal right to keep her child, parents don’t necessarily care about the law.”
The situation unspooling in Texas is “very unusual,” says Nash. “If you’re supportive of the right to choose, it is her right to become a parent or not to become a parent. At the same time, this is an incredibly big responsibility that she is undertaking, and her parents will be undertaking it along with her. So this is a very tough situation.”
It remains to be seen just how involved the girl’s parents will be with their new grandchild. While Burnside and her husband, who is not Evan’s biological father, are being supportive, the girl’s parents may find it harder to play a role: days after the judge’s ruling, Evan, a high school sophomore, married his pregnant girlfriend, a junior, in what Burnside calls a “shotgun” wedding. The expectant couple moved into Burnside’s home, where Evan is raising a cow for the upcoming county fair.
There wasn’t much time to plan any wedding festivities, but in a month or so, the newlyweds plan to host a crawfish boil to celebrate.