When a 10-year-old Ohio girl traveled to Indiana last month to end a pregnancy forced onto her by a rapist, several conservative politicians and TV pundits called the report a hoax.
After horrific details confirmed the case was real, some tried a new tack: claiming, without evidence, that the child could have still legally obtained an abortion in Ohio under a near-total abortion ban that exempts only mothers whose lives or major bodily functions are at risk once fetal cardiac activity is detected.
Catherine Glenn Foster, president of the anti-abortion Americans United for Life, added another defense for young rape victims: She told the House Judiciary Committee that a 10-year-old’s pregnancy “would probably impact her life and so, therefore, it would fall under any exception and would not be an abortion.”
In televised statements and interviews, anti-abortion advocates have used misleading rhetoric about abortion access to downplay fallout and complications from restrictive abortion laws as doctors, struggling to interpret laws that have largely been untested in courts, turn away pregnant patients for care.
Those efforts have had an immediate impact, casting a narrative about a post-Roe v. Wade world that overlooks how abortion laws enacted in recent weeks have complicated the way doctors treat rape victims, miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies.
More than half a dozen doctors interviewed by The Associated Press said they feel compromised and uncertain operating in an abortion landscape fundamentally changed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that rejected nearly 50 years of precedent that abortion was a protected constitutional right.
“It’s a horrible position for health care providers to be in, to be unsure about what’s legal and what’s not legal, and to be questioning the care that they know that they should provide,” said Dr. Jennifer Kerns, an associate professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who initially questioned reporting of the 10-year-old girl’s rape case, said in a Fox News Channel interview that she did not have to leave Ohio for abortion treatment, citing the state’s exemptions. Last week, Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis repeated the claim during a public forum: “She could have had that abortion here.” The law’s Republican sponsor said the same in a newspaper column published Thursday.
But it’s not as clear cut as they’ve suggested.
The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission confirmed in an analysis that the age of a mother, alone, would not allow a girl to legally access the procedure in the state. Doctors in Ohio are required to document a medical condition and rationale if they administer an abortion to provide life-saving treatment.
Yost’s office did not return a request for additional comment. Gonidakis laid out “different scenarios” to the AP under which the girl might have been able to access the abortion in Ohio, such as if a doctor agreed her life was at risk because of her age, while noting that he had not reviewed her medical records.
Across social media, some conservatives have also minimized concerns about access to treatment for ectopic pregnancies, calling it “still legal in every state.” An ectopic pregnancy is defined as one in which a fertilized egg grows outside the uterus, where it has no chance of survival.
Earlier this month, abortion opponent Erin Morrow Hawley told the House Reform and Oversight Committee that ectopic pregnancies had become the subject of “misinformation.”
“There have been social media posts suggesting that women won’t get treated for an ectopic pregnancy because doctors might be afraid of performing the procedure, but that’s absolutely false,” said Hawley, an attorney at the religious nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom. “Treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is not, in fact, an abortion.”
State abortion laws, however, have fueled confusion.
Doctors generally agree that the procedure to an end an ectopic pregnancy, which typically includes medication or surgery to remove the pregnancy, is not the same as an abortion.
But women reportedly have been declined care in states that have severely restricted abortion access, like Ohio, where an abortion is banned once fetal cardiac activity is detected. Fetal heartbeats can still be present in ectopic pregnancies. In one case, a central Texas hospital told a physician not to treat an ectopic pregnancy until it ruptured, per a letter from the Texas Medical Association.
In an email to the AP, Hawley said that doctors who have turned away ectopic pregnancy patients because of abortion bans are misinterpreting the laws.
Still, before Roe v. Wade was even overturned by the Supreme Court in June, some religious hospitals had policies against treating women for ectopic pregnancies.
And many states have not specified in their newly enacted abortion bans that an ectopic pregnancy can be treated as an exception. That’s left doctors in some states leery of ending the pregnancy, said Dr. Kate White, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University School of Medicine. Lawmakers in West Virginia, for example, are considering an abortion ban that would carve out an exception for ectopic pregnancies.
“Clinicians may be afraid to treat it if the abortion law in their state does not explicitly carve out ectopic pregnancy. You can see their worry, ‘Hey, growing pregnancy, can’t interrupt it ever,’” White said. “They are afraid that the law is too broad.”