Disbelief in case of 10-year-old rape victim who got abortion is 'harmful' to safety of children: Expert

An Ohio man was arrested and charged Wednesday with the rape of a 10-year-old girl who sought an abortion across state lines in Indiana. The case of the young victim drew national attention when an article about the situation was published on July 1 in the Indianapolis Star — one week after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.

In the story, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an ob-gyn in Indianapolis, said she spoke regarding the girl with a doctor in Ohio who was knowledgeable about child abuse. No additional details about the victim or alleged rapist were obtainable.

A week later, President Biden referred to the news report before signing an executive order protecting access to reproductive health services. “She was forced to have to travel out of the state to Indiana to seek to terminate the pregnancy and maybe save her life,” he said.

Skepticism of the case ensued by conservative media outlets and Republican politicians — with some calling the story a hoax.

“The level of incredulity in the wake of this is really quite stunning, and it’s also quite harmful to our national discourse about the health and safety of our children,” Michele Goodwin, chancellor’s professor of law at University of California, Irvine, and author of “Policing the Womb,” told Yahoo News. “It means that those who are struggling with whether they should come forward to report that a neighbor, father or relative has harmed them, it means that those girls may in fact, credibly, understand that they won’t be believed.”

Goodwin has made public her own story of having been raped by her father starting at age 10. By age 12, she was pregnant by her father and had an abortion that she says saved her life.

Goodwin spoke to Yahoo News about what the implications are in a post-Roe v. Wade world for victims of rape and incest who live in states with abortion bans and no exceptions.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Yahoo News: Why did a 10-year-old girl who was raped in Ohio have to seek an abortion across state lines in Indiana?

Michele Goodwin: Ohio has enacted a law that prohibits the person from knowingly and purposefully performing or inducing an abortion after six weeks. For this girl who had been raped and became pregnant, it was six weeks and a matter of days, but this meant that in the state of Ohio, which provides no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, that if that girl remained in the state, she would be forced by state lawmakers and the governor to give birth in that state at the age of 10 or 11 years old. Her only means of escaping this involuntary pregnancy was to leave the state where then she would be able to terminate the pregnancy.

So in this case, now we have a girl who traveled out of state to Indiana in order to receive an abortion. And following that, there is an individual [Gerson Fuentes, 27] who came forward and who has now been charged with felony first-degree rape. And he is being held on a $2 million bond, which is also a level of bond that is very high, certainly signaling that rape is being taken seriously in this one case, given how this case fits into a national discourse right now.

I will say that we’ve had histories in this country where rape has gone unpunished and incest has gone unpunished. So there is a way in which there is a kind of performative aspect now in terms of both prosecution and political response to this issue.

Yahoo News: What has transpired with conservative news outlets, politicians and office holders regarding this case?

What has occurred in the process is that there were individuals who claimed that this was a hoax, that this could not have existed. Now, there are many troubling aspects of this because it’s not as if this [doesn’t happen] in our country, that we haven't had centuries of child abuse.

Essentially, after the arrest of Gerson Fuentes, who's 27 years old, after he confessed to authorities that he had in fact raped this 10-year-old girl, and on multiple occasions, that changed the discourse — at least from those who had claimed that this was a hoax, that it was a situation that the state would never confront after enacting such a draconian law, banning abortions in the state.

One aspect of this that is deeply troubling and stunning is the fact that lawmakers claim to have been caught flat-footed in this instance. And I think it’s worse than being caught flat-footed, it has been this level of incredulity that this could possibly occur in any of the states that had enacted these rather broad bans on abortion without any exceptions for rape or incest, which would suggest that given that these laws make no exceptions for rape or incest, that there were lawmakers who very specifically considered it, and then decided that they did not want to protect girls who are raped.

Yahoo News: In a Fox News interview, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, suggested that the 10-year-old victim could have used the abortion exemption for medical emergencies. Would the 10-year-old girl’s case qualify under this exception?

So rape and incest provisions are different than provisions intended to save the life of the pregnant child, pregnant woman, pregnant person. An analyst with the office of research and drafting for the legislative service commission of Ohio did respond to an Ohio lawmaker making it very clear that this victim would not have qualified to have an abortion in Ohio given the factual circumstances of her pregnancy, she didn't qualify. Ohio could pass a law where it could interpret incest as being life-threatening. I believe incest is life-threatening. I believe that rapes are life-threatening. But lawmakers in Ohio who signed on to this law clearly do not see incest and rape as being worthy of exception, and they do not extend incest and rape to qualify as being life-threatening. So it doesn't apply.

[After Fuentes’s arrest, Yost said in a statement that his “heart aches for the pain suffered by this young child. I am grateful for the diligent work of the Columbus Police Department in securing a confession and getting a rapist off the street.”]

Yahoo News: Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita said his office plans to investigate the Indiana ob-gyn who provided abortion care to the 10-year-old girl. What are the grounds for an investigation?

It does not appear that she did anything unlawful. Part of what we see is the satisfying of a political base, and we're seeing politicians — and state attorneys general are politicians, they run for office. And so part of what one sees is what can be the very dangerous reaches of political rhetoric and attention to satisfy a base in order to win votes and in order to raise money for the next election.

So when we hear that a prosecutor or a person involved in law enforcement is interested in investigating someone who appears to have not done anything wrong, that itself should strike everyone as quite alarming, and they should remember that when they go to the polls. And so it’s not surprising when an attorney general who, perhaps comes from a political party that is oppositional to abortion, might then make public his personal views. I will say that part of what alarms me in these times are the ways in which there is the conflation, rather than the separation, of church and state.

Yahoo News: In Indiana, abortion is currently banned after 22 weeks, with exceptions for medical emergencies, but could that change soon?

The child that was able to have an abortion in Indiana at this time could have that procedure. There are lawmakers in Indiana who want to enact laws that are similar to what we’ve seen in other states, which would mean to either completely abolish abortion being legal in that state or significantly scale it back. And what this means is that in states that have been hostile to abortion rights, it won’t simply be that you could cross the border and have access to the facilities that would provide abortion care.

In fact, it may be that an individual lives in a state where they may have to go multiple states away in order to get the kind of care that they're seeking. So not across the border, perhaps several states away. Lawmakers in Indiana have already said that they don’t want people coming from other states to have abortions in Indiana, and that they are looking to pass laws that will be among the most restrictive in the country.