A rape, an abortion, and a one-source story: a child's ordeal becomes national news
A July 1 news report that a pregnant 10-year-old girl from Ohio sought an abortion in neighboring Indiana has drawn intense national attention in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month striking down Roe v. Wade.
Abortion rights proponents — including President Biden — pointed to the incident as evidence of the cruel consequences of the court's decision. But in the initial absence of any public corroborating details beyond an Indianapolis obstetrician's account, opponents of abortion rights repeatedly cast doubt on whether the incident happened at all.
Then, Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Ohio's attorney general — an anti-abortion Republican — slammed the Indianapolis Star for first reporting the story, law enforcement officials in Franklin County, Ohio, arraigned a 27-year-old man in the rape of the girl. A municipal court judge set a bail of $2 million for Gerson Fuentes of Columbus, Ohio. Detective Jeffrey Huhn had testified that Fuentes confessed to raping the girl at least twice, according to a videotape of the proceedings reviewed by NPR. (The proceedings were first reported by the Columbus Dispatch and the Star.)
The episode illustrates the high stakes of both the new legal landscape on abortion and of reporting in an age of deep political polarization and mistrust of major news outlets.
A compelling tale based on a single source
The Star broke the story on July 1. While multiple doctors were quoted in the article, the introductory anecdote was attributed to a single source: Dr. Caitlin Bernard. Bernard, a prominent obstetrician-gynecologist who is an assistant professor at Indiana University's medical school, told the paper's reporters of a phone call from a child-abuse physician in Ohio. That article did not set out any further details about the Ohio patient nor explain how it had verified the doctor's story.
Ohio had passed a law in 2019 restricting all abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, effectively banning them after six weeks. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, state lawmakers swiftly ensured that law would take effect.
The Ohio doctor's patient, a 10-year-old, was "six weeks and three days pregnant," by Bernard's account.
The article told readers of a broader phenomenon: patients in Ohio and Kentucky, another state with restrictive abortion laws, were seeking abortions in Indiana, where new restrictions had not yet been enacted. "It's hard to imagine that in just a few short weeks we will have no ability to provide that care," Bernard told The Star's Shari Rudavsky and Rachel Fradette.
Yet the anecdote about the 10-year-old carried added emotional freight. It whipped around social media and soon became part of the political fray on cable news as well. Last Friday, Biden picked up on the report in his own impassioned remarks about abortion access.
"She was forced to have to travel out of the state to Indiana to seek to terminate the pregnancy and maybe save her life," Biden said at the White House. "Ten years old — 10 years old! — raped, six weeks pregnant, already traumatized, was forced to travel to another state."
Both Indiana and Ohio have strict reporting requirements for abortions and for allegations of rape; Ohio law treats any instance of sexual intercourse with a child under 13 years old as rape. The paper's article did not reflect any complaint had been filed by medical professionals, child abuse specialists, or relatives.
Conservative politicians challenge the story's veracity
Conservative media outlets, such as The Daily Caller, started to press Bernard for more details, as did more mainstream news organizations, including The Washington Post and NPR. Bernard repeatedly declined comment, texting an NPR reporter, for example, "I'm sorry, I have no information to share." The Post's "Fact Checker" columnist, Glenn Kessler, cautioned about accepting a one-source story as fact.
And conservatives who had embraced the Supreme Court's decision stepped up skepticism about the Star's reporting on social media. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a rising star in Republican circles, denounced CNN host Dana Bash for trying to "trap me" by asking her about the incident. "Now it looks like the story was fake to begin with," Noem tweeted on July 8. "Literal #FakeNews from the liberal media."
When NPR sought comment, Rudavsky referred the reporter to the paper's corporate owners. A spokeswoman at The Star's parent company, Gannett, released the following statement from Bro Krift, the paper's executive editor: "The facts and sourcing about people crossing state lines into Indiana, including the 10-year-old girl, for abortions are clear. We have no additional comment at this time."
Documentation of an abortion can be hard to come by
There are often reasons documentation of an abortion, particularly in a case involving a minor and rape, is hard to come by. A pregnant girl's family would likely be wary of becoming part of the news cycle. Many official reports are not disclosed publicly unless they become part of a criminal or civil legal process, as it was in this case. Laws about health care privacy shield medical records from public view.
The drumbeat continued.
"Another lie," tweeted U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio Tuesday. Jordan is in line to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee if the Republicans take over the House next year. "Anyone surprised?" (He later deleted the tweet.)
The Wall Street Journal editorial page called it a "fanciful tale" in a piece representing the official editorial position of the paper, headlined "An Abortion Story Too Good To Confirm." Fox News's Emily Compagno, co-host of Outnumbered, told viewers abortion activists were ignoring real rapes to propel their cause: "What I find so deeply offensive, is that they had to made up a fake one!"
"There have been a number of false or inaccurate claims made about abortion law and the Dobbs decision, including false claims that women can be prevented from traveling for medical care or that ectopic pregnancy treatments are now barred as abortion in some states," George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, a Fox News contributor, wrote in a column for the New York Post. "These false accounts can be a dangerous form of disinformation if women believe that they cannot receive treatment for legal procedures."
An attorney general's denunciation and then silence about The Star
On Monday night, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost told Fox News host Jesse Watters that there was "not a whisper" of evidence to support the claim an Ohio girl had been raped and had to go to Indiana. (The Journal, The Post, and Fox News are corporate cousins, as they are each controlled by Rupert Murdoch and his elder son Lachlan.)
Yost went further in an interview with the USA Today Network Ohio bureau, which serves Gannett's newspapers in the state, including the Dispatch. (It is a sister outfit to the Indianapolis Star.) "Every day that goes by, the more likely that this is a fabrication," Yost told Gannett's Ohio newspapers. He said the paper's reporting unfairly disparaged police and prosecutors who, he claimed, would have already found and charged the rapist were the story true.
"What I'm saying to you is there is not a damn scintilla of evidence," Yost told the Gannett Ohio papers. "And shame on the Indianapolis paper that ran this thing on a single source who has an obvious axe to grind."
As it turns out, the girl's mother had reported the rape to Franklin County's Children Services agency, which referred a complaint to Columbus police on June 22nd, according to Detective Huhn's testimony Wednesday. According to Huhn, the abortion took place in Indianapolis on June 30 - the day before the article about her plight was posted by the Star.
Late Wednesday evening, Caitlin Bernard, the OB-GYN at the center of the story, tweeted: "My heart breaks for all survivors of sexual assault and abuse. I am so sad that our country is failing them when they need us most. Doctors must be able to give people the medical care they need, when and where they need it."
Yost declined comment to NPR and other outlets Wednesday after Fuentes was charged, other than a single sentence: "We rejoice anytime a child rapist is taken off the streets."
Later in the afternoon, he issued a further public statement saying, "My heart aches for the pain suffered by this young child" and thanking law enforcement officers for getting the accused rapist off the streets. Yost did not offer any apology to the Indianapolis newspaper or even a reference to the vindication of The Star's reporting.
The Republican attorney general of Indiana, Todd Rokita, appeared with Fox's Jesse Watters tonight, tweeting that Watters was fighting "fake news." He announced to Watters' viewers he would be scrutinizing Bernard's record to see if he could challenge her medical license.