More than 120 girls ages 14 and younger have had abortions in Colorado in the past five years, including eight 12-year-olds, according to the state health department.
The state statistics do not include any children younger than 12, though doctors who provide abortions in Colorado said they have treated 10- and 11-year-olds. One doctor interviewed by The Sun said she was recently subpoenaed to testify against the accused rapist of an 11-year-old who came to her for an abortion.
The Sun requested the age data, which spans from 2017-21, from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as the nation deals with the repercussions of last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v. Wade. Abortion rights advocates are pointing to the story of a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio as an example of how state laws are affecting pregnant people around the country, including children who are victims of incest and rape.
The Ohio girl traveled to Indiana in June to get an abortion because it was illegal in Ohio. With the fall of Roe, which provided a consitutional right to an abortion, an Ohio “heartbeat” law went into effect, making abortions after six weeks of pregnancy illegal in that state. Now lawmakers in Indiana, where abortion is legal until 22 weeks, are scheduled to consider further restrictions during a special legislative session this week.
Some of the young people who received abortions in Colorado were from other states, though the specific number was not available.
Asked about the discrepancy between the data and doctors’ statements that they have treated patients younger than 12, the state health department said sometimes the data is incomplete. Hospitals and clinics are required to report abortions to the state, but it’s possible that some were not reported or they were reported with incomplete information, including the patient’s age. The data is anonymous and does not include patient-identifying information, such as date of birth, so state officials cannot verify whether a reported age is correct, said Kirk Bol, manager of the state’s vital statistics program.
State data shows 122 people age 14 and under had abortions in the five-year period, 23 of whom were age 13 and 91 were age 14.
The numbers are a small fraction of total abortions in Colorado, which reached 11,580 last year and totaled more than 48,000 in the past five years. Of the 2021 abortions, 9,949 were for state residents and 1,631 were for people who traveled from other states and countries. The most common states were Wyoming, Texas and New Mexico.
Those numbers are expected to rise as states surrounding Colorado enact further abortion restrictions. Colorado is one of few states that does not restrict when during pregnancy an abortion is allowed, and state lawmakers this year — in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling — passed a law affirming the right to abortion and contraception. This month, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order saying Colorado will protect people who seek abortions and those who provide them, including those from other states.
Abortion rights advocates say the cases of very young girls, who are almost always victims of sexual assault, illustrate their point that each pregnancy is different and that abortion restrictions will have unintended consequences. After the story of the Ohio 10-year-old made international news, some doubted it was true on social media. The girl’s alleged rapist was charged last week with assaulting her after child protection officials reported the crime to authorities.
Ohio data shows 52 people 14 and younger received abortions in that state in 2020, the most recent statistics available. The number of abortions per year in Colorado for that age group is about 25.
Dr. Rebecca Cohen, a Denver area obstetrician and gynecologist who provides abortions, said some of her toughest cases have involved girls as young as 10, 11 and 12. Some don’t understand how they became pregnant, let alone what it means to get an abortion, she said.
In most cases, their parents had no idea they were sexually active or had been assaulted and did not realize until several weeks into the pregancy what had happened. They instead went to a pediatrician or emergency department to ask about vomiting, weight gain or stomach pains. The shock and trauma of such a situation reverberates through the family, particularly when the perpetrator was a relative, Cohen said.
“They are so traumatized from the experience, from talking to law enforcement, from the physical pain,” Cohen said.
“This is real. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking for people to say this never happens. I wish it didn’t happen. Anyone who has cared for a child who was sexually assaulted or abused wished it wouldn’t happen. It’s one of the most heartbreaking situations. It’s a terrible event. We work with their families as well, mothers, grandmothers, sisters. It affects everyone in a way that just really stays with them for a long time.”
Victims of assault and incest are even less likely to tell their parents they are pregnant because they have been told to keep quiet, she said. Or, they may not even understand or have words for what occurred. They might not understand a common pediatrician question: “Are you sexually active?”
Under Colorado law, children that young cannot give legal consent to have sex, so almost every case is a sexual assault, Cohen said.
In Colorado, the age of sexual consent is generally 17, but there are “close-in-age” exemptions. State law says those who are 15 or 16 can lawfully have sex with partners who are less than 10 years older. For those 14 and younger, legal sexual behavior as defined by the law is with partners no more than three years older.
Cohen said she has never had to tell a child they are pregnant because by the time they come to her office, “they understand they are going to see this doctor to help you not be pregnant anymore.” They often don’t get to her until the second trimester, when abortion is banned in many other states.
“It’s different than helping an adult,” she said. “These cases are the ones where, to be completely honest, we cry.”
Cohen, who recently was subpoenaed to testify in a rape case involving an 11-year-old abortion patient, isn’t the only Colorado doctor who has cared for young patients. Dr. Yadira Caraveo, a pediatrician and state lawmaker now running for Congress, sent a fundraising email asking “Have you ever told a 14-year-old that her chronic stomach ache is actually a pregnancy? I have. As her pediatrician, I can give her a choice in that moment — to become a mom, or not.”
Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains CEO Adrienne Mansanares said the organization often sees patients who are around age 13. “Any person who is menstruating can become pregnant. Period,” she said. “Sometimes we have a patient who didn’t even get her period but was ovulating.”
The numbers of these patients are small, but they are examples of why politicians should not make health care decisions, Mansanares said. “It supports what we have long known, and that is that abortion is incredibly personal,” she said. “Forcing people to give birth is not healthy for a society.”
Besides young rape victims, Mansanares spoke of people who have untreated or unresolved mental health issues or those living on the streets or in cars as among those who should not be forced to give birth.
Abortion opponents, including those who tried to pass a ballot measure in 2020 that would have banned abortion in Colorado after 22 weeks, have focused attention recently on the governor’s executive order that says the state will protect those seeking and providing abortions. The order says Colorado won’t assist in criminal or civil actions in other states aimed at preventing women from getting access to abortion.
A letter signed by 18 Republican state lawmakers and released last week attacked Polis’ executive order and said the governor made it clear that Colorado “will proudly abort any unborn child at any time during a pregnancy, irrespective of residency.”
The letter does not mention exceptions for children who are pregnant but does discuss rape. “In nearly every case, rape excepted, life is naturally created by the conscious choice of two individuals aware of the potential outcome of their decisions,” it states. “The issue, then, is whether a life created by that informed volitional act can now be taken. Nowhere in law or morals is it otherwise acceptable to end a life because of the imposition of personal hardship or inconvenience resulting from one’s own deliberate actions.”
A request from The Sun for comment about where the group stands regarding abortions for very young patients was not returned.
The ballot measure that failed in 2020 and would have banned abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy did not include an exception for rape or incest. It did include an exception for when the mother’s life was at risk.
A key question now part of the national debate: Would a young child face dangerous health risks to carry a pregnancy and give birth? Limited research on the issue, much of it from developing nations, supports that argument, while other research says that if a person is old enough to get pregnant, it’s safe for them to give birth.
The lawmakers’ letter called for increased efforts from families and faith organizations to care for babies, including through adoption and financial support.
“Fathers should be compelled by law to properly share in the full responsibility of the lives they create,” wrote the authors, including state Reps. Stephanie Luck of Penrose and Dave Williams of Colorado Springs, and Sens. Kevin Priola of Henderson, Larry Liston of Colorado Springs and Kevin Van Winkle of Highlands Ranch.
“The responsibility is real,” they wrote, “but it can, to an extent, be shared throughout the community.”