Wisconsin doctors are split on whether high-risk child pregnancies warrant a life-saving exception

By Phoebe Petrovic
Wisconsin Watch

In 2020, 14 girls under age 15 had induced abortions in Wisconsin, according to the latest data from the Department of Health Services. In 2017, that number was 17. That same year, the latest for which data is available, 24 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 gave birth. The Department does not appear to track under-15 maternal mortality.

“Pregnancy is very risky in children,” Dr. Wendy Molaska, physician and president of the Wisconsin Medical Society, told Wisconsin Watch via email.

Molaska has seen children as young as 9 become pregnant. Last month, the story of a 10-year-old girl made international headlines after she had to travel from her home in Ohio to Indiana to get an abortion.

Although the DHS has recorded a small number of induced abortions among young teens in recent years — hovering between 17 and 11 since 2013 — these disruptive and risky pregnancies pose an even greater challenge in post-Roe Wisconsin.

The age of consent for sex in Wisconsin is 18. But Wisconsin’s near-total abortion ban does not contain an exemption for rape or incest.

It does, however, contain an exemption for so-called therapeutic abortions deemed necessary “to save the life of the mother”. Although the medical field universally recognizes that teenage pregnancy carries risks, doctors seem divided on whether Wisconsin’s legal exemption would apply to young teens and girls.

Molaska says that according to the Medical Society’s current interpretation of the Wisconsin ban, “it does not allow abortion in children solely because of their size and age.”

“It’s still the gray area of ​​medicine,” she writes. “Who determines when a person’s life is in sufficient danger to allow them to have an abortion?”

Madison-based obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Shefaali Sharma says teenage pregnancies pose increased health risks to both mother and child.

Pregnant girls may struggle with underweight or anemia, which can lead to fetal growth problems. They are at higher risk of preeclampsia, a condition of very high blood pressure, and eclampsia, an associated seizure, as well as premature delivery, which leads to many complications.

Young girls – who are still growing on their own – may have narrow pelvises that prevent safe vaginal deliveries, requiring a caesarean section. Premature births may require a vertical cesarean section rather than a horizontal one, which prevents any future vaginal birth.

Abortion procedures like dilation and curettage or dilation and evacuation are “exponentially safer,” Sharma says, “than a 13, 14, 15-year-old caesarean, especially in terms of long-term reproductive health. term and autonomy in the future.”

There are also associated social, emotional and psychological risks for both parent and child, Sharma says. Untreated perinatal and postnatal depression and anxiety can affect the baby. Teenage mothers are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to face economic hardship – problems their children are also more likely to face.

All of this leads Sharma to conclude that aborting a young girl would be a life-saving procedure.

“She easily has an increased risk of dying in childbirth,” Sharma says. “She usually has an increased risk of very morbid labor and cesarean section if she doesn’t have other pregnancy-related complications, like eclampsia, and, you know, loses brain function and is completely incapable not only to live one’s own life and become an adult, but to care for another child or baby.

Sharma adds, “The mere lack of consent, resulting in a life-threatening outcome – it’s a life-saving procedure.”

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