A recent recreation of a University study has showed that court systems in Michigan are now providing more accurate information to minors regarding Michigan’s reproductive health laws for young women seeking to have an abortion without parental consent.
The study, originally done by Anna Kirkland, associate director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and recreated by the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, revealed that since 2010, nearly all 83 of Michigan’s counties improved on the ways in which information about the Parental Rights Restoration Act of 1990. The original study found almost all of the courts were providing inacccurate information.
The law requires young women seeking an abortion to give their own consent and the consent of at least one parent or guardian to receive the procedure. However, if the minor opts not to involve their parent or guardian, she has the right to a judicial bypass hearing in which she has to prove to a judge she is mature and educated on the topic enough to have an abortion without additional consent.
According to Kirkland, in the original study her students made phone calls to each county’s court using a standardized script, asking how someone under the age of 18 could get a judge’s permission to have an abortion without informing their parents. Kirkland’s students found many counties were unprepared to provide the proper information for minors seeking bypass hearings, and, oftentimes, factors such as regional difference, demographics and county size would affect the performance of the county.
“It’s a right that every girl has to be able to seek this judicial bypass procedure,” Kirkland said. “We shouldn’t have court employees lying about the law or claiming that a law doesn’t exist when it does.”
According to a paper summarizing the results of the study, the students often found they were inappropriately referred to other unhelpful employees, and were ridiculed or verbally abused while asking for information. Kirkland said employees seemed uncooperative and uninformed, indicating that not only were court employees unable to provide accurate information, but they were also allowing their personal political and religious beliefs to influence their responses.
“We had large numbers of counties that we called where (the information) was completely wrong, or they denied that the law existed,” Kirkland said.
The study found 43 percent of all Michigan counties were providing litter, incorrect or no information about the law in 2010, demonstrating a surplus of unqualified court personnel in answering questions regarding the bypass procedure.
In an e-mail interview, Taryn Gal, outreach coordinator for MOASH, wrote the new study found court clerks and clerical workers were especially unhelpful to teenagers.
“We found that the entire process was not youth-friendly, especially in terms of privacy, accessibility and court personnel comfort and confidence with information they were providing,” she wrote. “Because of the work done in the original 2010 study, we were able to then go further and identify additional barriers that minors would likely face when looking for information.”
MOASH decided to replicate the initial study to begin their Michigan Youth Rights project, or MY Rights, funded by the National Institute for Reproductive Health, Gal said. The project focuses on the rights of pregnant minors.
While the 2010 study only had 46 percent of counties considered “in the green,” the MOASH replication study held 74 percent of counties in the green, nearly a 30-percent increase in improvement. The study found court personnel were able to provide better information in 2015 in response to the same questions asked in 2010.
“However, once we delved further, we learned that many would not provide information unless the specific question was asked,” Gal wrote. “Therefore, a minor not knowing what to ask would not be provided with necessary information and that, beyond those specific answers, oftentimes read from an info sheet, most could not provide additional information or support.”
Both Gal and Kirkland attributed much of the improvements in availability of information regarding reproductive health laws to the study conducted in 2010.
“Some court supervisors were really angry that their employees had been so unprofessional and unprepared, and they were very embarrassed,” Kirkland said. “It uncovered some embarrassing problems that they went on to fix.”
First-year law student Laura Cohen, co-president of the Michigan chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, said though she was not surprised to learn that court systems are giving inaccurate information to minors, the lack of information and lack of education is a legal issue.
“Putting yourself in the shoes of someone who is a teenager in a very difficult situation who is scared, who doesn’t know what to do, who doesn’t think they can go to their parents, has no way to get around this,” Cohen said, “and then you call the court and they tell you inaccurately that there’s nothing to be done, you can see how that can lead to some unfortunate results.”
Despite statewide improvement in the recent study, Washtenaw County’s score decreased in the 2015 study with the lowest rating, contradicting the high rating in 2010.
With 21.4 percent of the population under the age of 18, this indicates Washtenaw is still among the less-prepared counties when it comes to the judicial bypass procedure, and demonstrates a need for court personnel to be more educated and objective on the topic, Cohen said.
Gal echoed Cohen’s statement, and said she hopes courts studied in the research will use her findings to make improvements on how they disseminate information regarding reproductive health laws to minors.
“There is still a need for further education and awareness raising in order for minors to be able to fully exercise their rights,” Gal wrote. “If minors are not given complete and accurate information, they do not have full access to the judicial bypass process. Less subjectivity and inconsistency is needed.”