SAN FRANCISCO— A federal judge in San Francisco said Wednesday that the government cannot prevent a pregnant 17-year-old at a Texas facility for unaccompanied immigrant children from getting an abortion, but declined to issue an order that would bar federal officials from interfering in the girl's access to the procedure.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler said the legal challenge on behalf of the girl by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California was not filed in the right court.
The ruling allows the girl's attorneys to file a new lawsuit seeking the same order in another federal court district. Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, said the group hadn't decided its next step, but would continue to fight for the girl's right to an abortion.
"A first-year law student understands that it is unconstitutional for the government to ban abortion," she said. "The legal claim is pretty straightforward."
The ACLU says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is refusing to let the girl be taken for an abortion. The girl may be up to 14 weeks' pregnant, Rochelle Garza, a lawyer appointed to represent the girl's legal interests, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. Texas law prohibits most abortions after 20 weeks.
In her ruling, Beeler said there was "no justification" for restricting the girl's access to an abortion.
"The government may not want to facilitate abortion," Beeler wrote. "But it cannot block it. It is doing that here."
Beeler, however, said the girl's legal challenge belonged in a new lawsuit, noting that the girl—identified only as Jane Doe—was in Texas, not in Northern California. The ACLU had sought to amend an existing lawsuit pending before Beeler to include Jane Doe's case.
U.S. lawyers representing HHS argued against that, saying the original lawsuit claimed the agency was violating the Constitution by allowing religious groups to allegedly refuse access to abortion.
Unaccompanied Central American children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border are generally turned over to facilities run by private operators on behalf of HHS. Many facilities are affiliated with religious organizations that oppose abortion, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In this case, government lawyers said the 17-year-old was not being held in a facility with a religious affiliation.
A lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, Peter Phipps, said at a hearing Wednesday that the government might propose having Jane Doe's case heard in Texas or Washington, D.C.
Garza said the teen is from Central America, like most people caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without legal permission. She declined to give the girl's name or identify the specific country where she was from, citing the girl's privacy, but said that the girl wanted an abortion in part because her parents had abused another sibling who was pregnant.
With Garza's help, the girl obtained a judicial waiver under a Texas law requiring a minor seeking an abortion to get consent from a parent. But staff at the facility where she's being held refused to take her to appointments or let the attorney take her, even though private groups that support abortion rights have raised money for the procedure, Garza said.
Instead, she was taken to a crisis pregnancy center. Such centers encourage pregnant women not to have an abortion.
"I feel like they are trying to coerce me to carry my pregnancy to term," the girl said in a declaration filed in court last week.
Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a strident opponent of abortion rights, argued in a court filing that people in the U.S. illegally without some type of established ties to the country do not have a "constitutional right to an abortion on demand."
A ruling in the girl's favor would "will create a right to abortion for anyone on earth who enters the U.S. illegally," Paxton said in a statement. "And with that right, countless others undoubtedly would follow. Texas must not become a sanctuary state for abortions."
Paxton was joined in filing the brief by the attorneys general of Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.