After President Joe Biden repeated an anecdote about a 10-year-old Ohio girl who was denied an abortion in her home state and had to travel to Indiana for the procedure, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column irresponsibly speculated about whether the story really happened. Conservative media seized on the column, creating a right-wing firestorm which gleefully cited the Post’s fact check to discredit, attack, and denigrate the girl and the doctor who ultimately provided her care.
Fox News was a particularly bad actor in this regard. In 6 of the 7 segments the network ran between the publication of the Post’s article on July 9 and confirmation of the story on July 12, Fox personalities explicitly cited The Post's skepticism to cast doubt on the account showing the real ramifications of abortion restrictions following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Before obtaining all the facts, the Fact Checker baselessly speculated about the veracity of the case
On July 1, the Indianapolis Star first reported that a 10-year-old rape victim had to travel from Ohio to Indiana for an abortion procedure because she was three days past Ohio’s six-week restriction, basing the story on an anecdote from Indiana OB-GYN Dr. Caitlin Bernard. Biden then mentioned the incident during a July 8 speech about his executive order to protect reproductive health care access following Roe’s reversal, saying, “Just last week it was reported that a 10-year-old girl was a rape victim in Ohio – 10 years old – and she was forced to travel out of the state to Indiana to seek to terminate the pregnancy.”
The following day, a fact check from the Post’s Glenn Kessler concluded that claims from the Star were difficult to confirm, despite Bernard speaking to the paper on the record, due to the lack of public knowledge about where the rape occurred, which hindered efforts to corroborate the story through local officials.
“With news reports around the globe and now a presidential imprimatur, however, the story has acquired the status of a ‘fact’ no matter its provenance,” Kessler complained. “If a rapist is ever charged, the fact finally would have more solid grounding.”
Then on July 12, after days of coverage casting doubt on the story, Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier confirmed that a 10-year-old did in fact cross state lines for abortion care. The next day, the Columbus Dispatch further corroborated the story, reporting that a Columbus man was charged and arrested for the child’s rape.
While the Fact Checker did update its piece to reflect new reporting once the story was confirmed, it still created an avalanche of right-wing outcry that denied the young girl's existence and maligned the doctor. Defending his initial read of the Ohio case, Kessler wrote, “This is an interesting example of the limitations that journalists face in corroborating this type of story without evidence confirmed by law enforcement,” implying that police sources are one of the only ways to confirm facts. (In reality, official police statements are often biased to protect the interests of law enforcement agencies – but they are still often uncritically cited by journalists.)
Kessler also tried to discredit the Star’s reliance on information from Bernard, an OB-GYN with a focus on abortion, by claiming that she is “an activist” based on a 2019 lawsuit in which Bernard sued members of the Indiana Medical Licensing Board to stop attempts to restrict a specific abortion procedure. As an expert on reproductive health, she, along with other care providers, knows firsthand the detrimental effects of restrictions on bodily autonomy and shouldn’t be shunned by journalists for her role in protecting access to crucial health care.
Led by Fox, right-wing media quickly seized on the Fact Checker to discredit the story
As soon as Biden highlighted it, conservative media rushed to discredit the story, specifically citing the Washington Post’s fact check in doing so. The Post was cited by Fox personalities to debunk claims about the young Ohio girl in 6 of the 7 segments Fox News ran between the publication of Kessler’s fact check on July 9 and Fox’s confirmation of the story on July 12.
Some right-wing commentators went as far to use the Fact Checker’s article to claim that the story about the 10-year-old was fabricated. During an appearance on Fox’s Outnumbered, the Washington Times’ Charlie Hurt accused politicians of trying to “make up a story like this” to push “their own sick agenda.” While Fox was crying foul, CNN and MSNBC didn't cite the Fact Checker at all, with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes mentioning Kessler’s article to critique it only after it had been updated. (Fox failed to mention the column was edited to address new details following Kessler’s July 13 update.)
For years, conservative pundits, particularly at Fox, have time and again used any opportunity possible to attack abortion care, patients, and providers, directly feeding widespread harassment and inspiring anti-choice violence. These bad-faith actors have no problem giving a platform to anti-abortion misinformation, and they quickly took up Kessler’s column as a chance for Fox to dig deeper in its long record of atrocious coverage about reproductive health.
Accurate fact-checking will be more important than ever in the post-Roe world
In a post-Roe landscape, profuse state-level abortion restrictions will lead to more stories along the lines of the Ohio 10-year-old seeking an abortion in Indiana. These stories will become even more difficult to fact-check as the criminalization of abortion care forces many providers to operate under the radar. As this new reality settles in, journalists must be flexible enough to adjust preconceived notions about objectivity in fact-checking, as the Nieman Lab explained:
If performing or receiving an abortion now counts as activism, well, then journalists will need to be okay quoting “activists,” unless they only want to tell the anti-abortion movement’s side.
Countless abortion stories will never be told at all. It won’t be because they’re lies. It will be because telling them is too risky, because patients and doctors and staffers and volunteers will face arrest for coming forward.
The facts will live on in the shadows. The women and children’s real lives will continue. Even if their stories seem “too good” to be true. Even if you wish they weren’t.
The Fact Checker has repeatedly applied unequal scrutiny to abortion advocates and adversaries
Past work from the Fact Checker has also failed to be adequately skeptical of misinformation spread by anti-abortion activists.
In 2017, the Fact Checker looked into claims that serial misinformer and Trump appointee Chermaine Yoest believed the unproven notion that abortion can increase one’s risk for breast cancer. The Fact Checker ultimately dismissed the claims based on the faulty reasoning that Yoest had said it five years before, writing that “it’s an old quote, and as far as we can tell, she hasn’t repeated it since.” In an update, the Post stated it had been “alerted” to more recent instances of Yoest repeating the claim but refused to adjust its analysis or award her any “Pinocchios,” its standard measure of dishonesty, because “the 2012 interview is an old quote. She repeated a version of it in 2015, but would not say one way or another when we inquired.”
On the other side, when it comes to fact-checking abortion advocates, the Post has a history of being much more discerning. A 2019 Fact Checker article awarded “four Pinocchios” to a claim that “thousands” of women died each year from unsafe care before Roe v. Wade enshrined the right to an abortion. It is true that lack of access to safe and quality abortion care did result in injury and death -- a 2009 study found that 13% of cases of maternal mortality worldwide were due to unsafe abortions. However, Post fixated on the term “thousands” and argued that the number of yearly deaths from botched abortions leading up to the 1973 ruling was probably less than a thousand, undermining the very real dangers posed to pregnant people seeking unsafe abortions. Multiple anti-choice activists cheered the Post, using the fact check as proof in their crusade against abortion rights.
Again in 2019, a Post fact check from Kessler lasered in on comments from then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) for a tweet warning about Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s fraught record on contraceptives. Rather than correcting conservative misinformation repeated by Kavanaugh that contraceptives are “abortion-inducing,” the Fact Checker instead chastised Harris for the tweet being “misleading,” awarding her four Pinocchios.