Ohio Girl’s Abortion Case Shows How New Bans Will Impact Young Patients

She was only 10 years old, so young that many people were horrified when they heard her, and others refused to believe her. But the ordeal of the Ohio child rape victim who had to cross state lines to have an abortion, and the horrific political fight that followed, brought two uncomfortable facts to light. : such pregnancies are not as rare as thought, and new abortion bans are likely. have a pronounced impact on the youngest pregnant girls.

New bans in nearly a dozen states make no exceptions for rape or incest, leaving young teens — already among the most restricted in their abortion options — with less access to the procedure. Even in states with rape and incest exemptions, police reporting and parental consent requirements can be prohibitive for children and adolescents.

“The situation outside of Ohio is by no means unique,” said Katie McHugh, OB-GYN in Indiana and board member of the group Physicians for Reproductive Health, which promotes abortion rights. “This is a situation that every abortion provider has seen.”

The number of pregnancies in the United States among girls under age 15 has declined sharply in recent decades with greater access to contraception and a decline in teenage sexual activity. But state and federal data suggest there are still thousands of such cases each year. And nearly half of those pregnancies end in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights and regularly surveys clinics.

In 2017, the last year for which data was available, the institute concluded that there were 4,460 pregnancies among girls under the age of 15, of which around 44% ended in abortion. In Ohio alone, 52 girls under the age of 15 had abortions in 2020 — an average of one per week, according to the state Department of Health.

It is not known how many times these pregnancies are the result of incest or rape. Children in this age group have generally not reached the age of sexual consent, although sexual contact between two young teenagers of the same age is not always considered a crime. And some states allow children to marry with parental permission.

In Ohio, sex with anyone under the age of 13 is a first degree felony. Abortion is now banned in the state after approximately six weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest.

The surprising age of the Ohio rape victim helped cast doubt on her story, which quickly turned into a political storm after it was reported in The Indianapolis Star. Abortion rights advocates and President Biden have pointed to the girl’s experience as the tragic consequence of the abortion ban. Conservatives questioned whether the child existed, and even the Ohio attorney general initially said he found no evidence of such a victim.

This doctor, Caitlin Bernard, later tweeted“My heart breaks for all survivors of sexual assault and abuse. I am so sad that our country is failing them when they need us most.

Lauren Ralph, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said her research shows that adolescents who seek abortions tend to be firm in their choice, but face barriers such as lack of transport and parental notification and consent laws, which exist in the majority of states. Minors who seek to avoid parental notification, such as in cases of incest or where a parent seeks to force a pregnancy, are often required to file a police report or appear before a judge.

These are high and sometimes impossible bars to jump, experts said, especially for people without legal assistance and young victims who may have been hurt by the adults closest to them.

With some Americans living up to 400 miles from the nearest legal abortion provider, the new state bans are likely to severely affect teens.

“We know that young people already faced many other barriers to accessing abortion before the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Dr. Ralph said. “What’s going to happen with this decision is that these barriers for young people living in restricted states will now multiply.”

Dr. Bernard, the Indiana OB-GYN who performed an abortion for the 10-year-old girl from Ohio, said in an interview in early July, before the political storm erupted, that she had experience in treating other very young rape victims.

The toughest case of her career, she said, was when a mother brought her 14-year-old daughter on a date after the girl was raped. The mother wanted her daughter to have an abortion.

“But the patient said, ‘I don’t want to kill my baby,'” recalls Dr. Bernard. “She felt like the abortion was wrong.”

Dr Bernard said she told the mother she could not perform the abortion without the 14-year-old’s verbal consent. Eventually, the mother persuaded her daughter to have the procedure.

Indiana, which currently allows abortions up to 22 weeks, may soon pass its own stricter limits in a special legislative session scheduled for late July.

In Oklahoma, a law that bans nearly all abortions makes exceptions for cases of rape or incest, but only if those crimes have been reported to law enforcement.

Wendi Stearman, the Republican lawmaker behind this Oklahoma law, has championed high barriers for exceptions.

As for the 10-year-old girl in Ohio, “It’s horrible what happened there,” she said. “But even more horrible is taking the life of another child.”

Ms Spearman said laws should not cater to worst-case scenarios.

“Laws should be made for the general, and that’s an incredibly rare case,” she said.

It is not uncommon for some lawmakers and anti-abortion organizations to oppose rape exceptions to abortion bans, sometimes even in the case of child victims. In a statement praising the arrest of a 27-year-old suspect in the Ohio case, Ohio Right to Life expressed concern for the girl and her family, but called her abortion ” band-aid solution” which “only added to the pain”. and the violence perpetuated against it. The victim deserved better.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said, “The violence of rape will not be cured by the violence of abortion. The love and support that this child needs will be continuous and not momentary.

Yet abortion providers and doctors who care for the youngest patients say this approach fails to recognize the needs and desires of young victims and their families.

In Colorado, Kristina Tocce, medical director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said she aborted a 13-year-old incest victim and recently treated her youngest patient: an 11-year-old Texan. who had flown to Denver for an abortion alongside a relative. Although this patient was treated before Roe was overthrown, the child was forced to leave Texas because the state found a legal workaround to ban abortions after six weeks gestation, with no exceptions for rape. or incest.

It was the 11-year-old’s first time on a plane, Dr Tocce said.

In Texas, state records show that more than 200 children aged 15 and under had abortions in 2021, before the ban was passed. One of these patients was 11 or younger and 30 were 12 or 13 years old.

Dr. Tocce predicted an influx of patients in Colorado, where abortion remains legal with no gestational limit. Even in states that allow the procedure for rape or incest, the burden of proving that patients are eligible for an exemption can intimidate providers, who won’t want to risk lawsuits, she noted.

“These exceptions are in print, but they basically mean nothing when everyone practicing there is too scared,” she said.

In Madison, Wis., Jennifer Ginsburg, executive director of the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center, said she was saddened but not surprised to hear the Ohio victim’s story.

A few months earlier, his center, which works with child abuse victims, had referred a 10-year-old girl, pregnant by her stepfather, for an abortion to Planned Parenthood.

Ms. Ginsburg and her team provide counseling and support to young victims of abuse and their family members, while ensuring that forensic assessments conducted for police investigations do not aggravate a child’s trauma. . If a victim wanted an abortion, the center would help connect them with nearby providers.

But soon after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, doctors in Wisconsin halted abortion services. Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, is battling the Republican-led Legislature in Wisconsin over the validity of a century-old law that criminalizes nearly all abortions, including those resulting from rape and incest . Mr. Evers and his attorney general have taken legal action to try to block the ban.

Ms. Ginsburg said Safe Harbor was not awaiting the results of the governor’s lawsuit. She planned with other local organizations to help young victims travel out of state for an abortion — a plan that advocates are increasingly turning to as more states ban abortion. procedure.

“How are we going to help pregnant children? ” she asked.

Margot Sanger Katz contributed report.

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