The case centers on a Central American teenager, identified in court papers as Jane Doe, who was being held in a government-funded shelter last fall. She had been seeking an abortion since learning, shortly after she crossed the border, that she was pregnant. But the administration said it would not “facilitate” abortions for minors in federal custody.
The five-page order issued Monday directs the lower courts to dismiss as moot the teen’s individual claim seeking access to abortion services. The girl was able to terminate her pregnancy before the high court got involved. She has since turned 18 and is no longer in federal custody.
The short, unsigned opinion obscured what was likely a divisive behind-the-scenes disagreement. The court began to consider the administration’s request in January, and it was continually rescheduled for the justices’ private conferences. In the end, the justices put aside what might have been dueling opinions for a more anodyne statement that drew no noted dissents.
The girl’s attorney, Brigitte Amiri of the American Civil Liberties Union, described the ruling as narrow. She said it does not affect the ongoing challenge to the government’s policy for pregnant teens in federal immigration custody.
Moreover, a nationwide order issued by the judge in that case prevents the government from blocking access to abortion services. The administration appealed the injunction.
Late Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit largely refused to lift the injunction.
“Now we can focus on going forward and continue to do everything we can to strike the policy down once and for all,” Amiri said.
Administration officials said in a statement Monday that the high court has repeatedly made clear “the federal government is not obligated to help a minor get an abortion and may choose policies favoring life over abortion.”
“We look forward to continuing to press the government’s interest in the sanctity of life,” said officials from the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services in a joint statement.
In its order, the Supreme Court did not agree with a separate Trump administration request asking that ACLU lawyers who represented the girl be disciplined for their actions in the case.
Government lawyers accused the ACLU of reneging on a deal that would have given them time to appeal a D.C. Circuit ruling that allowed the abortion. The girl terminated her pregnancy before the government appealed. That rendered their request moot and opened the administration to criticism from antiabortion groups, which accused the government of moving too slowly.
The court said Monday that it takes “seriously” allegations that lawyers tried to keep justices from hearing the case but also that lawyers have ethical obligations to serve their clients. In the end, it said, it did not need to determine who was at fault to decide to throw out the lower court’s decision.
“Not all communication breakdowns constitute misconduct,” the court said.
That Solicitor General Noel Francisco went to the court with the complaint says much about the political salience of the abortion issue and the changed nature of the administration’s position.
While the Obama administration supported abortion rights, President Trump has appointed antiabortion officials to top positions at the Justice Department and HHS, as well as other offices.
The Trump administration has enacted a policy of blocking abortion access — even though the government is not asked to pay for the procedure — for immigrant teens held in government-funded shelters.
Unsealed court documents in the case of another teen show that the head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, E. Scott Lloyd, denied access to abortion services for the 17-year-old, who said she was raped and threatened to harm herself if she could not end her pregnancy.
Lloyd denied the teen’s request over the recommendation of a senior staff member who said the office should assist the teen in getting an abortion, according to the filing.
In the case before the Supreme Court, the girl dubbed Jane Doe went to some lengths to get her abortion, in a case that took a rapid but circuitous route through the courts.
Last fall, she persuaded a Texas judge that she was mature enough to make the decision to end the pregnancy without the notification of her parents, whom she said she feared, according to her attorneys. But the administration refused to allow access.
After back-and-forth court decisions, there was a narrow window in late October in which the girl, then 15 weeks pregnant, was cleared to have her abortion.
That started the race. For the Trump administration, the goal was to quickly get the issue before the Supreme Court so the procedure could be blocked. For attorneys for the girl, it was to get her the abortion as soon as possible.
Texas law requires medical counseling at least 24 hours in advance of an abortion by the same physician who performs the procedure. It was unclear whether the doctor who provided the teenager counseling would be available to perform the abortion.
Francisco said the government relied on the word of the girl’s attorneys that she would not be able to obtain the abortion without waiting another 24 hours, and so the government delayed its request to the Supreme Court.
But the original doctor made himself available, and he performed the abortion before the government could file its petition.
The broader challenge to the policy is continuing to move forward, with the ACLU representing a class of undocumented teenagers challenging the policy. In March, U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan imposed an order stopping the government from “interfering with or obstructing” access to any “pregnancy-related care” for teens detained in immigration custody.
In 2017, there were at least 420 pregnant unaccompanied minors in custody, including 18 who requested abortions.