Should a raped 10-year-old girl be able to access a legal abortion? That is the central question right-wing media have desperately avoided grappling with in the days since a viral story about one such child broke.
On July 1, the Indianapolis Star reported that Indiana abortion providers had seen “a dramatic increase in the number of patients coming to their clinics from neighboring states with more restrictive policies” since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month. The article opened with an anecdote about a 10-year-old girl who was six weeks and three days pregnant and had been referred from a “child abuse doctor” in Ohio, where abortions became illegal after six weeks in almost all cases following Roe’s reversal, to Indiana obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Caitlin Bernard, who provided her with care.
The horrific story went viral and was ultimately highlighted by President Joe Biden a week later. “This isn't some imagined horror,” Biden said before describing the account at an event unveiling steps his administration is taking to preserve abortion access. “Imagine being that little girl,” he added. "I'm serious, just imagine being that little girl.”
Cases like these seem unimaginable, but they are actually an inevitable result of the right-wing’s ideology. In 2020, Ohio averaged one abortion a week performed on a child 14 years old or under. In states where the Republican Party is dominant, legislators have spent years passing trigger laws that would curtail abortion access as soon as Roe was overturned. That includes Ohio, whose abortion ban went into effect after the court released its opinion and which includes no exception in cases of rape.
Conservatives don’t want to publicly examine what a raped 10-year-old’s options should be if she is impregnated. Americans generally favor abortion rights, and all the more so in such cases: A recent Pew Reseach poll found that 69% of Americans say abortion should be legal if the pregnancy is the result of rape, a number that would presumably be higher in cases involving a 10-year-old.
If conservatives say that a raped child should be forced to bear a child of her own, they will sound like monsters to a wide swath of the country. But if they say she should be able to get an abortion if she chooses, they open themselves up to more questions: At what age should a rape survivor be stripped of that choice? What about an 11-year-old rape survivor? A 14-year-old? A 17-year-old? A 21-year-old? The end of Roe has opened up a Pandora’s Box of such quandaries for the right — and its propagandists would prefer not to face them.
Instead, right-wing media outlets focused on trying to debunk the girl’s existence as her plight gained increasing attention. They suggested Bernard had fabricated the story, criticized the Star’s reporters for running it without additional corroborating evidence, and went after other media outlets and Democrats like Biden for talking about it.
PJ Media writer Megan Fox launched the right-wing’s backlash with a July 5 viral tweetstorm, which claimed that the “TIMING of this horrific story is too on the nose” and described it as a “possibly hypothetical or made-up scenario,” and from there it spread through the ecosystem.
On Fox News, Jesse Watters devoted multiple segments to the case on Monday, suggesting that the story may be a “hoax” that fit a “pretty dangerous pattern of politically timed disinformation” and interviewing both Megan Fox and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, whose claim that he had heard “not a whisper” about such a rape from law enforcement triggered a new round of right-wing media chatter.
By Wednesday morning, the august Wall Street Journal editorial board was mocking the “Abortion Story Too Good To Confirm” as a “fanciful tale” and an “unlikely story from a biased source.” The board sneered: “The tale is a potent post-Roe tale of woe for those who want to make abortion a voting issue this fall. One problem: There’s no evidence the girl exists.”
The board’s argument collapsed just a few hours later when the Columbus Dispatch reported that Gerson Fuentes, a 27-year-old Columbus resident, had been arrested the previous day “after police say he confessed to raping the child on at least two occasions,” and that he had since been charged with rape.
But evidence confirming the terrible story did not force a broad reckoning in right-wing media about whether the survivor should have access to abortion care. When Fox hosts like Watters, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham discussed the case on Wednesday night, they mentioned that question only to dismiss its importance. Instead, they pivoted to different lines of attack in an effort to change the subject, smearing Bernard and those who championed her story while demagoguing over the alleged perpetrator’s reported status as an undocumented immigrant.
Watters offered no apologies when he returned to the story on Wednesday night. Instead, he suggested that his program’s coverage — which had suggested the lack of law enforcement action in the case meant the girl didn’t exist — was responsible for “illegal” Fuentes’ arrest.
Watters went on to accuse Bernard of attempting to “cover this up” by allegedly not reporting the rape to the proper authorities. This makes no sense — as the Dispatch revealed, the authorities were aware of the raped child’s case long before Bernard provided her with health care. The girl’s mother detailed the case to Franklin County Child Services on June 22 and it was then referred to the Columbus police department, while the girl underwent an abortion on June 30, according to police.
But Watters, who kept a photo of Bernard’s face front and center for his viewers throughout much of the segment, was determined to smear the doctor. “So is a criminal charge next? And will Dr. Bernard lose her license?” he asked, before turning to Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita. He concluded that interview by saying, “Thanks for coming on and please keep us posted on what's going on with this abortion doctor and whether or not she's going to face any sort of scrutiny.”
The Fox host’s primary concern is ensuring that Bernard pays a price for daring to tell her story. That story is politically inconvenient for him, and the more pressure he can bring to bear on Bernard, the more he can dissuade other doctors with similar stories from coming forward.
The following hour, Carlson criticized the White House for supposedly failing to vet the story, which he claimed was really about illegal immigration, not abortion.
“So the obvious headline here was not about abortion. It was about the crime committed against a child – ‘Who raped a 10-year-old?’ ” said Carlson. “Nobody seemed interested at all in learning who this person was. And maybe there was a reason for that. Apparently, the rapist was an illegal alien.”
The alleged rapist was also the sole person of import for Ingraham when she discussed the case the following hour.
“And as President Trump said in 2015, they're sending their rapists, including 27-year-old Gershon Fuentes,” she said. “He was just arrested for raping a 10-year-old girl in Ohio on at least two occasions. And according to an ICE source, he is here, of course, illegally.”
Left unmentioned by the hosts was whether the 10-year-old survivor should have had the option to have an abortion. They have nothing they are willing to offer her but punishment for her attacker. It won’t be the last time they shy away from the consequences their ideology inflicts.