Special Report

What Happened in Richmond?

Does anyone in authority really want to know?

By 7.10.08

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A 16-year-old girl had an abortion. No big deal, you say. Ah, but add to the facts. The girl is a ward of our federal government and no one notified the head of the federal agency who is her guardian in advance as required by state law -- and more, employees of an agency affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of Richmond arranged the abortion with the advance knowledge of the Catholic bishop.

Either of these two circumstances would make this case a big deal. Both together definitely do.

Let me add a third wrinkle. The girl is a Guatemalan whose parents are missing. What are the views of the Guatemala government on how Americans have treated their citizen and her unborn child?

The federal agency, Health and Human Services, in the person of David H. Siegel, acting director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, was the girl's guardian. His agency contracted with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who in turn contracted with the Catholic Charities of Richmond to provide foster care.

Late last year, Catholic Charities had the girl outfitted with a contraceptive device. There are no public reports whether that act required the consent of the guardian or whether the behavior of the girl prompting this outfitting required notice to the guardian. In any event, the outfitting was contrary to the official policies of Catholic Charities.

Then the girl became pregnant. By whom did she get pregnant? Was it the result of rape? statutory rape? sexual abuse? Was the abortion committed to cover-up the identity of the father or the manner of sexual intercourse? To cover-up any negligence in her foster care?

The girl is vulnerable. Presumably she speaks Spanish, perhaps only Spanish. She is without her parents. She's in a foreign country. Her guardian is a bureaucracy. So, did she consent to the abortion?

Did she seek out an abortion? Did anyone pressure her to do so? What motives did those counseling her about the abortion have? Who arranged the appointment? Who arranged the transportation? Did she speak with a Spanish-speaking doctor in order to give consent?

Enter the Virginia Commonwealth's Attorney for Richmond, Democrat Michael N. Herring, who made an announcement Monday. He is not interested in any of the questions just raised.

He doesn't say he has spoken with the girl, or the social worker, or anyone else. He had not spoken with anyone from the federal government. He uses words like "it appears" and "may have been" and "probably" and "could."

He says: "I would hate for any prosecution to be colored by all the politics surrounding the issue of abortion. Those who are pro-life, so to speak, are clamoring for prosecution. Those who are pro-choice insist the actions do not warrant prosecution." (It is interesting that he follows "pro-life" with "so to speak," not granting them even their own terms of self-identification.)

Well, Prosecutor Herring, there is a state criminal law requiring advance notice to the parent or guardian of a minor. The inspector general of the federal Health & Human Services, an attorney for the guardian, is conducting an investigation of its violation, but I guess you think that can only be political.

Herring added that the clamoring by those who are pro-life and those who are pro-choice "could...overshadow [] a more important issue, which may have been the girl's health." "It appears as if the young lady was going to have an abortion by some means...to resort to [means other than medical abortion], which probably would not have been safe or sanitary." He continued, "A 16-year-old hell-bent on aborting a fetus is going to do it either way."

Hmmm, let's see where this new Herring exception fits into the existing law of abortion. First, it should be noted that parental notice laws do not require parental consent. Second, in states where notice is required, a minor can obtain the permission of a judge in lieu of notice under some circumstances (called "judicial bypass"). And now, Herring's exception: If a minor is "hell-bent" on an abortion such that she would obtain a back-alley abortion, then no notice to her parent or guardian or judge is required. Mr. Herring has effectively nullified the Virginia law on parental notice in his district.

Herring conceded on Monday, July 7, and again on Tuesday, July 8, that he would investigate whether the person who signed the consent form believed or did not believe that he or she had the authority to consent to the girl's abortion. Obviously, the person can easily say he or she did so believe. And just as obviously, Herring's remarks demonstrate that he doesn't really care since he doesn't think notice to, much less consent from, any adult was necessary.

Furthermore, if we may speculate in the same fashion as Herring, we could say that the girl might have removed the birth control device, that she was hell-bent on becoming pregnant and a mother, and she may have been coerced into having an abortion. But Mr. Herring shows no interest in ascertaining all of the facts.

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About the Author
James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. attorney.