Ohio girl’s abortion case shows how new bans will affect young patients

The girl was only 10 years old, so young that many people were terrified when they heard the news, while others did not believe it. But the ordeal of a child rape victim in Ohio, who had to cross state lines to get an abortion, and bad political war afterwardshighlighted two uncomfortable truths: Such pregnancies are not as rare as people think, and new abortion bans have the potential to markedly affect the youngest pregnant girls.

New ban in nearly a dozen states There is no exception for rape or incest, which makes the procedure less accessible to adolescents – already the most limited in abortion options. Even in states with exemptions for rape and incest, requirements regarding police reports and parental consent can be prohibitive for children and young people.

“The situation in Ohio is not unique,” speak Katie McHugh, an OB-GYN in Indiana and a board member of the group Reproductive Health Doctors, advocates for abortion rights. “This is a situation that every abortion provider has seen before.”

The number of pregnancies in the United States among girls under the age of 15 has plummeted in recent decades with greater access to contraceptives and a decrease in adolescent sexual activity. But state and federal data shows there are still thousands of such cases each year. And nearly half of these 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, concluding institute There were 4,460 pregnancies in girls under the age of 15, with about 44% ending in abortion. In Ohio alone, 52 girls under 15 years old Received an abortion in 2020 – an average of one per week, according to the state Department of Health.

It is unclear how often these pregnancies are the result of incest or rape. Children in this age group in general under the age of sex, although sex between two teenagers of the same age is not always considered a crime. And some states allow children to marry with parental permission.

In Ohio, having sex with someone under the age of 13 is a first degree felony. Currently, the state prohibits abortion after about 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, quickly turned into a political firestorm after it is covered in The Indianapolis Star. Abortion rights advocates and President Biden point to the girl’s experience as a tragic consequence of the abortion ban. Conservatives questioned whether the child existed, and even the Ohio attorney general initially said he had found no evidence of such a victim.

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

Lauren Ralph, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, says her research shows that teens seeking abortions tend to be resolute in their choices but face barriers. such as lack of transportation, parental consent and notification laws, exist in most states. Minors who seek to evade parental notice, such as in cases of incest or when parents want to force a pregnancy, often have to file a police report or appear before a judge.

Those are high and sometimes unresolvable thresholds, experts say, especially for individuals without legal aid and young victims who may have been hurt by adults. closest to them.

With some Americans living to 400 miles away from the nearest legal abortion provider, the new state ban could seriously affect teens.

Dr Ralph said: “We know that young people faced more barriers to access to abortion before deciding to overturn Roe v. Wade. “What will happen with this decision is that the barriers for young people living in restricted states will now multiply.”

Dr. Bernard, an OB-GYN doctor in Indiana who provided abortions to a 10-year-old girl in Ohio, said in an interview in early July, before the political storm erupted, that she had experience treating other very young rape victims.

The most difficult case of her career, she said, was the case of a mother taking her 14-year-old daughter to a date after she was raped. The mother wants her daughter to have an abortion.

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

Dr. Bernard said she told the mother she could not perform an abortion without the 14-year-old boy’s verbal consent. In the end, the mother convinced her daughter to have the procedure.

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

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

Wendi Stearman, the Republican lawmaker behind that Oklahoma law, has defended high barriers to exceptions.

For the 10-year-old in Ohio, “It was horrible, what happened there,” she said. “But more terrible than taking the life of another child.”

Ms. Spearman said the law should not apply to worst-case scenarios.

“Law should be made for the general public, and that is an extremely rare case,” she said.

It is not uncommon for some legislators and anti-abortion organizations to oppose rape exceptions to the abortion ban, even in cases where the victim is a child. In a statement Praising the arrest of a 27-year-old suspect in the Ohio case, Ohio’s Right to Live expressed concern for the young girl and her family but called her abortion a “band-assisted solution.” “only added to the pain and lingering violence against her. Victims deserve better. “

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for an American Life, says, “Rape violence will not be cured by the violence of abortion. The love and support this child needs will be continuous, not just momentary.”

However, abortion providers and doctors who care for the youngest patients say that approach fails to recognize the needs and wants of young victims and their families. .

In Colorado, Kristina Tocce, medical director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said she provided abortions to a 13-year-old incest victim and recently treated her youngest patient. : an 11-year-old Texan boy flew to Denver for an abortion with his parents. Although that patient was treated before Roe was turned over, the child was forced to leave Texas because the state had found a legal solution to ban abortion after six weeks of gestation, with no exceptions for rape. adultery or incest.

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

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

Tocce predicts a large number of patients in Colorado, where abortion is still legal with no gestational age limit. Even in states that allow the procedure in cases of rape or incest, the burden of proving that a patient qualifies for an exemption can intimidate providers who will not want risk prosecution, she noted.

“Those exceptions are in print, which just means they make no sense when all the practitioners there are so scared,” she said.

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

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

Ms. Ginsburg and her team provide counseling and support services to young abuse victims and their family members, and ensure that any forensic evaluation is carried out for Police investigations do not affect the child’s trauma. If the victim wants an abortion, the center will help connect them with nearby service providers.

But soon after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, doctors in Wisconsin halted the abortion service. Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, is battling the Wisconsin Republican-led Legislature over the effect of a centuries-old law criminalizing nearly all abortions. , including rape and incest abortions. Mr. Evers and his attorney general filed a lawsuit to block the ban.

Ginsburg said Safe Harbor is not waiting for the outcome of the governor’s lawsuit. She is planning with other local organizations to assist young victims traveling out of state for abortions – a plan advocates are increasingly moving towards as more states ban the procedure. .

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

Margot Sanger-Katz contribution report.

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