Opposition to abortion ban exemptions leaves child sex assault victims with limited options

By: - August 3, 2022 7:00 am
Republican Primary Debate Candidates

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, businessman Tim Michels and state Rep. Tim Ramthun at a debate in the Republican primary for governor. (Screenshot | WisEye)

The three candidates vying to be the Republican nominee for governor this fall have repeatedly said they’re not in favor of adding any further exceptions to the state’s abortion ban, which kicked back into effect this summer when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. 

The state’s criminal abortion ban, which was initially enacted in 1849, allows for exemptions if the life of the mother is at stake. In all other cases, it’s a felony to perform an abortion. 

The three Republican candidates, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, businessman Tim Michels and state Rep. Tim Ramthun, have resisted calls to add other exemptions, such as in cases of rape or incest. 

At a debate hosted by WTMJ at Marquette University last month, Ramthun said specifically that a pregnancy should be carried to term no matter how it was conceived.

“Life begins at conception, life is a gift from God,” he said. “It’s not the child’s fault. It is not the child’s fault and how they were conceived. That said, I do not support abortion in any form.”

At a campaign event, Michels briefly refused to say whether or not he would sign legislation banning emergency contraception known as Plan B. In audio of the event, obtained by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, an attendee asks him “I’m concerned about babies’ lives being lost to these abortion pills that are being passed off as contraception. … What are your plans for dealing with that?”

Michels responded by saying “they’d be illegal in Wisconsin.” A campaign spokesperson later said the question was about medication abortions, not emergency contraception, but refused to say whether Michels would sign legislation banning the contraceptive. 

Later, Michels backtracked on his comments, telling the Journal-Sentinel he wouldn’t ban contraception.

“I am against abortion. I am not against contraception,” he said. “So there’s a big distinction there.” 

Michels has also previously said that it’s “not unreasonable” to force a pregnant rape victim to “go through birth.” 

Kleefisch has also said she supports the 1849 law while refusing to add an exemption for rape and incest. When serving as lieutenant governor under Scott Walker, she once shared a link to a news article agreeing with the statement that rape victims should “turn lemons into lemonade.” 

“I don’t think it’s the baby’s fault how the baby was conceived,” she told FOX6 in May. 

The three candidates’ stances against further exemptions to the abortion ban come as states across the country are debating where to place the line now that the Supreme Court has thrown out the 50-year-old constitutional protections for abortion access. 

In Ohio, that state’s abortion ban forced a 10-year-old victim of sexual assault to travel to Indiana to receive an abortion. The case has played a role in how Indiana lawmakers are shaping a proposed bill that would limit abortion access. 

In Wisconsin in 2021, according to crime data from the state Department of Justice, there were 1,853 reported incidents of rape, 18 reported incidents of incest and 715 incidents of statutory rape — cases in which the victim was a minor and therefore legally unable to consent to sex. 

Through mid-July of 2022, just in Madison and Milwaukee, there have been dozens of reported incidents of sexual assault with victims younger than 18 years old. According to data obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner from the Madison and Milwaukee police departments, Milwaukee has had 38 reports of sexual assault in which the victim was between 10 and 17 years old while Madison has had 13 such reports. 

This data is excluding reports of sexual offenses against children such as 4th degree sexual assault, fondling or sexual assault with an object, that don’t include penetrative sex. The data does not include the gender of the victim, but 82% of juvenile sex assault victims are female, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). 

Under the current abortion ban and the stated plans of the Republican candidates for governor not to add any exemptions, when children are victims of rape, as in the 51 reported cases in Madison and Milwaukee this year, if they become pregnant, would not  be able to access abortion care where they live. 

While abortions provided to patients less than 18 years old are rare, they do occur. In 2020, the last year for which data is available, there were 14 abortions performed on patients under the age of 15 and 174 on patients between 15 and 17, according to the state Department of Health Services. 

In nearly all the cases, the patient was able to receive the abortion after getting parental consent. Prior to the reinstitution of the state’s abortion ban, minor sexual assault victims could access abortion care without parental consent if they reported the assault to law enforcement and made a written statement that the pregnancy was a result of the assault. 

Not a single minor who received an abortion in Wisconsin since 2010 used this method of avoiding the parental consent requirement, the DHS data shows, but the data does not note if any of the minors who did receive consent were also sexual assault victims. 

Abortion patients under the age of 18 made up just 3% of the abortions performed in the state in 2020, but adolescent pregnancies carry higher risks of complications, according to the World Health Organization

The Kleefisch, Michels and Ramthun campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.