Voices: A 10-year-old rape victim was pregnant. Fox News refused to believe it was true

  (PA Archive)

It was the worst-case scenario. After Roe v Wade was overturned, Ohio — a “trigger law” state — brought in a six-week abortion ban. And just three days after that, reports started circulating that a 10-year-old girl from the state — a victim of child sexual abuse who had been raped and impregnated when she was nine — was unable to access a termination.

The case came to light because Dr Caitlin Bernard, an obstetrician-gynecologist based in Indianapolis, Indiana told the Columbus Dispatch and the Indianapolis Star that she’d received a call from a doctor in Columbus, Ohio. The physician on the end of the phone was hoping that the Ohioan 10-year-old might be able to travel one state over to access the medical care she needed. In Indiana, which borders Ohio, abortion laws hadn’t yet been overturned — although it looks like similar restrictions to Ohio’s may be introduced in the near future.

As news circulated about the girl, there was an online outcry. Pro-choice activists pointed to it as proof of the cruelty of overturning Roe v Wade. Is this what the Supreme Court really imagined, they asked: middle school-age victims of child abuse pregnant with fetuses their bodies couldn’t physically carry to term being forced to travel hundreds of miles for basic medical care? And what happens when another young girl in the same situation can’t afford to make the trip, or when the neighboring state in question doesn’t have more lenient laws? This young girl, raped then re-traumatized by the state, was the logical consequence of a heartless, blinkered decision made mainly by middle-aged men.

But that’s not how the right saw it. First of all, we know what the right-wing position is on rape victims who have been impregnated by their attackers: that much has been made clear by people like Philip Gunn, the Mississippi lawmaker who suggested 12-year-old rape victims should carry their pregnancies to term; or Ted Cruz, who recently reiterated that he thinks rape victims should have their rapists’ babies; or South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, who was asked specifically about the 10-year-old and who answered with the old anti-abortion phrase, “I don’t believe a tragic situation should be perpetuated by another tragedy,” when what the meant was, “I believe a child who likely still watches cartoons and takes a teddy-bear to bed should be forced into motherhood because she was raped.”

To be fair, though, right-wingers acknowledged the case of the 10-year-old Ohioan girl was tragic. Noem even said it would keep her up at night. But wouldn’t it be more convenient for the right if they didn’t have to weasel-word their way out of this objectively horrifying case? Wouldn’t it be better if it wasn’t true at all?

That’s the thesis Fox News came up with, and they ran with it. “Biden’s story of child rape victim traveling for abortion ‘very difficult’ to prove, WaPo fact-checker says,” ran a Fox News headline on July 9, after the Ohio girl’s story went viral. In it, fact-checkers were quoted as saying that the case was more difficult than most to verify beyond speaking with doctors, because of the age of the child and details of the case. Medical procedures are protected by confidentiality laws, and so are issues pertaining to children’s services. Fact-checkers usually require two or three reliable sources, but in this case they could only find one.

On July 11, Fox News published a second article headline “Biden-cited story of 10-year-old Ohio rape victim needing abortion still not verified by fact-checkers”. By this time, the president had talked about the importance of an executive order which in part protects people who want to travel to a different state for an abortion, citing the 10-year-old’s case as a prominent example. “The rape of a 10-year-old would have immediately triggered a criminal investigation in the state of Ohio,” wrote Fox News reporter Nikolas Lanum. “Under the law, any physician is considered a mandate reporter and would be required to tell the local child welfare or law enforcement of suspected physical, sexual or emotional abuse of someone under 18. No criminal investigation has been found that matches the story, and the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, R., said it was not aware of any such case. He said it would be hard to confirm such a report without knowing the local jurisdiction in which the rape occurred.” Lanum later noted that “on both CNN and in a Washington Post opinion column, the story was used as a means to criticize Republicans.”

It seemed the right had been able to turn it all around, using that well-known strategy of “just asking questions”. If you “just ask questions” about a case that can’t be proven because of confidentiality, or Hunter Biden’s drug addiction, or antifa planning January 6 with the Democratic globalist establishment funded by George Soros, then you can’t be pinned down anywhere. You’re just a person who appreciates the truth. You’re advocating for freedom or speech and information. Anything that isn’t proven becomes a probable lie, and anything that’s proven using the usual systems — political, legal, justice — might also be a lie because, hello? That’s where the globalists pull the strings.

So Fox News doubled down. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost was interviewed on Fox about the rape case and said, “Every day that goes by, the more likely that this is a fabrication.” Jesse Watters, the popular Fox News host, went on-air to say he was pretty sure the whole thing was a hoax. Outrage bubbled throughout far-right social media. How sick were Democrats that they would make this up; how desperate to attack the righteous GOP?

And then, mere hours after Watters proclaimed the hoax dead in the water, an arrest was made in Ohio. Gerson Fuentes was charged with the rape of a minor on Tuesday morning, after admitting to sexually assaulting the 10-year-old, and it was reported by the Columbus Dispatch that the child had been able to successfully access an abortion on June 30. Fuentes now faces life imprisonment.

Fox News has not taken down its articles claiming that the story cannot be fact-checked (it has, however, published a separate story about the arrest, headlined: “Ohio 10-year-old’s alleged rapist is Guatemalan illegal immigrant: ICE source”, which itself appears to only make use of a non-fact-checker-friendly single source.) Yost, the Ohio AG who proclaimed his doubts about the case on national television, simply said, “We rejoice every time a child rapist is taken off the streets.” What America is left with is a young victim of child abuse forced across state lines and a culture war nobody wanted. The right kept on accusing the left of making an issue political — or indeed making it up entirely — before it became clear that the opposite was true. How many Fox News viewers will only remember the hosts railing against the Democrats and the still-live stories claiming the 10-year-old didn’t exist? How many more kids will have their abuse detailed and then dismissed on national TV? And how long until the far-right can accept that being pro-choice isn’t about point-scoring, baby-killing or global conspiracies, but instead about the simple compassion afforded to people making choices they never thought they’d have to make?