She Wasn’t Able to Get an Abortion. Now She’s a Mom. Soon She’ll Start 7th Grade.
Ashley just had a baby. She’s sitting on the couch in a relative’s apartment in Clarksdale, Miss., wearing camo-print leggings and fiddling with the plastic hospital bracelets still on her wrists. It’s August and pushing 90 degrees, which means the brown patterned curtains are drawn, the air conditioner is on high, and the room feels like a hiding place. Peanut, the baby boy she delivered two days earlier, is asleep in a car seat at her feet, dressed in a little blue outfit. Ashley is surrounded by family, but nobody is smiling. One relative silently eats lunch in the kitchen, her two siblings stare glumly at their phones, and her mother, Regina, watches from across the room. Ashley was discharged from the hospital only hours ago, but there are no baby presents or toys in the room, no visible diapers or ointments or bottles. Almost nobody knows that Peanut exists, because almost nobody knew that Ashley was pregnant. She is 13 years old. Soon she’ll start seventh grade.
In the fall of 2022, Ashley was raped by a stranger in the yard outside her home, her mother says. For weeks, she didn’t tell anybody what happened, not even her mom. But Regina knew something was wrong. Ashley used to love going outside to make dances for her TikTok, but suddenly she refused to leave her bedroom. When she turned 13 that November, she wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. “She just said, ‘It hurts,’” Regina remembers. “She was crying in her room. I asked her what was wrong, and she said she didn’t want to tell me.” (To protect the privacy of a juvenile rape survivor, TIME is using pseudonyms to refer to Ashley and Regina; Peanut is the baby’s nickname.)
The signs were obvious only in retrospect. Ashley started feeling sick to her stomach; Regina thought it was related to her diet. At one point, Regina even asked Ashley if she was pregnant, and Ashley said nothing. Regina hadn’t yet explained to her daughter how a baby is made, because she didn’t think Ashley was old enough to understand. “They need to be kids,” Regina says. She doesn’t think Ashley even realized that what happened to her could lead to a pregnancy.
On Jan. 11, Ashley began throwing up so much that Regina took her to the emergency room at Northwest Regional Medical Center in Clarksdale. When her bloodwork came back, the hospital called the police. One nurse came in and asked Ashley, “What have you been doing?” Regina recalls. That’s when they found out Ashley was pregnant. “I broke down,” Regina says.
Dr. Erica Balthrop was the ob-gyn on call that day. Balthrop is an assured, muscular woman with close-cropped cornrows and a tattoo of a feather running down her arm. She ordered an ultrasound, and determined Ashley was 10 or 11 weeks along. “It was surreal for her,” Balthrop recalls. “She just had no clue.” The doctor could not get Ashley to answer any questions, or to speak at all. “She would not open her mouth.” (Balthrop spoke about her patient’s medical history with Regina’s permission.)
Balthrop told Regina that the closest abortion provider for Ashley would be in Chicago. At first, Regina thought she and Ashley could drive there. But it’s a nine-hour trip, and Regina would have to take off work. She’d have to pay for gas, food, and a place to stay for a couple of nights, not to mention the cost of the abortion itself. “I don’t have the funds for all this,” she says.