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Undocumented Teen Held In Texas Is At The Heart Of An Abortion Fight

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union are asking a federal court in Washington, D.C., to force the Trump administration to allow a young, undocumented immigrant woman in Texas to obtain an abortion.

The ACLU said the 17-year-old unaccompanied minor from Central America is being held at a private shelter that contracts with the federal Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, and federal officials will not release her to obtain the procedure. The suit seeks an emergency order asking the court to block the federal government from obstructing the girl's access to abortion.

Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, calls the government's action "outrageous" and "unprecedented."

"The government is completely out of bounds by banning abortion for this young woman," Amiri said. "It is blatantly unconstitutional and it is inhumane."

Under Texas law, minors need parental consent or a judge's permission to obtain an abortion. In a previous legal filing, the ACLU said the girl, known as Jane Doe in the case to protect her privacy, has obtained that permission, but the government has blocked her from leaving the shelter for that purpose.

The ACLU said federal officials required the girl to undergo counseling and an ultrasound at a crisis pregnancy center, an anti-abortion organization that does not provide abortion services.

A spokeswoman for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provided this statement to NPR:

"In most cases when a child enters the United States illegally without a parent or guardian, by law the minor is placed into the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS' Administration for Children and Families. At that point, our paramount concern is the child's safety and well-being. While the child is in our custody, our goal is to provide food, shelter and care to her under federal statute. In this specific case, we are providing excellent care to the adolescent girl and her unborn child, who remain under our care until the mother's release."

Anti-abortion-rights groups have praised the Trump administration's action in the case. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion-rights group Susan B. Anthony List, said in a statement: "This young girl deserves compassion and quality health care. Abortion is not health care and the ACLU is taking advantage of a young woman in a desperate situation." She called the suit a "ploy" to turn Texas into a "sanctuary state for abortion."

In an amicus brief earlier this week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked a federal judge in San Francisco to deny the young woman's request. Paxton argued that allowing the girl to obtain an abortion would have "far-reaching and dire consequences."

For example, Paxton argued that allowing an abortion could open the door to other rights for undocumented immigrants, writing, "it is hard to imagine why she could be denied any other constitutional rights — such as the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms."

The San Francisco judge said on Wednesday that the government cannot block the girl from getting the procedure. But the judge declined to issue an order requiring the government to allow her to leave the facility in Texas, saying that the suit was not filed in the right court. That decision prompted the latest filing by the ACLU.

Amiri, with the ACLU, declined to say how far along the undocumented teenager in Texas is in her pregnancy but noted that delays bring increased health risks and legal barriers to obtaining the abortion as the pregnancy progresses.

Amiri said the case could have implications for other undocumented immigrant women.

"Since the Trump administration has taken over, we have seen a pattern of this happening to other women, and we are fearful that it will happen to other women in the future if the court does not intervene," Amiri said.

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Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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