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Tennessee teens can no longer seek judicial bypass for abortions


Abortion restrictions and bans across the South are forcing people to travel hundreds of miles to get the procedure in states that still allow it. It's a massive barrier, especially for pregnant teenagers. They have to navigate laws around parental permission, too. For years, Tennessee teens traveled to Nashville to get a judge's permission for an abortion instead of telling their parents. From member station WPLN, Paige Pfleger reports on what options are left for those teens now.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: Juvenile court judge Sheila Calloway remembers the faces of the pregnant teens who came into her chambers in Nashville.

SHEILA CALLOWAY: They're scared, anxious or nervous.

PFLEGER: And they were young.

CALLOWAY: Children as young as 14.

PFLEGER: For years, teens traveled from all over Tennessee to ask Judge Calloway for something called a judicial bypass. It was a rarely talked about part of Tennessee law that let young people go to a judge instead of their parents for permission to get an abortion. Calloway would approve about 10 each year. And half the time, she says teens don't want to tell their families because they were raped or assaulted, sometimes by a family member.

CALLOWAY: There are at least 10 girls in our community each year that will be forced to have a pregnancy that either they're not ready for, they're not prepared for, and they're going to be forced to do so, even if it is a situation as incest, which has happened.

PFLEGER: Calloway and the lawyers who helped represent these young people have never spoken publicly about judicial bypass until now.


RACHEL WELTY: Good morning. My name is Rachel Welty.

WELTY: Welty was one of those lawyers. Last month, she joined a group of Democratic lawmakers in front of the state capital to protest the state's abortion ban. Welty has fiery red hair and wore a shirt that says - our bodies, our futures, our abortions.


WELTY: The days of a teen hopping a Greyhound bus from Memphis so I can assist her with receiving a judicial bypass approval to seek out abortion services is effectively over.

PFLEGER: Tennessee now has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, with no exception for rape, incest or minors, and a narrow legal defense for the life of the pregnant person. Judicial bypasses are off the table. Welty says she cried when she heard the news. She immediately thought of the teens who would still need help and wouldn't be able to get any.

WELTY: They're going to have zero options.

PFLEGER: At least for abortion in this state. Those who support the restrictions say teens could choose adoption or parenting. Tennessee already has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancies in the country, and abstinence-only sex education is taught in schools. But for teens who want an abortion, it won't be easy, especially for those who don't want to tell their parents. They'll have to travel hundreds of miles to a state that still allows it, like Illinois.

EMILY WERTH: So since June 1, someone under the age of 18 in Illinois has exactly the same rights to access abortion as someone over the age of 18.

PFLEGER: Emily Werth is with the ACLU of Illinois. The change improves access for young people who live in Illinois and for teens coming from out of state. But Werth says the challenges don't end once they get an abortion.

WERTH: We often lose sight of the fact that people under the age of 18 have additional barriers that affect them uniquely, such as the risk that they may be reported as a runaway and face juvenile court consequences for that.

PFLEGER: Werth says that's one of many roadblocks that pregnant teens may face in post-Roe America. For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.
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