Comment: It was doubts over child’s rape that were political

A 10-year-old girl and her doctor were criticized when her circumstances didn’t fit the preferred narrative.

By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post

Last week, a wretched story came out of Ohio. A 10-year-old girl — a rape victim, in case that needs spelling out — was pregnant and in need of an abortion. But the overturning of Roe v. Wade had prompted a statewide ban on terminations after six weeks of pregnancy, so this child was going to either birth her alleged rapist’s baby or have to cross state lines to end her miserable situation. A physician named Caitlin Bernard had consulted on the case and spoke about it to Indiana news source IndyStar.

The case generated headlines and a mention by President Biden — “Just imagine being that little girl,” he said — and then some parties began to wonder aloud whether the story was so wretched it couldn’t be true. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, Republican, said that there was “not a damn scintilla of evidence” to corroborate the story. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Republican, tweeted, “It looks like the story was fake to begin with.” A reporter with the Daily Caller presented, as apparent evidence the story was a concoction, the fact that the physician who had publicized the case declined to offer additional information.

Other members of the media also cast doubt on the story. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board criticized Biden for perpetuating an “unlikely story from a biased source that neatly fits the progressive narrative but can’t be confirmed.” The Washington Post Fact Checker column wrote cautiously about the case, particularly the fact that it was attributed to a single source (the physician) and to the fact that abortions performed on 10-year-olds are “pretty rare.” (“The intent of the piece was to spotlight the need for careful reporting in a time when information spreads rapidly,” said Shani George, vice president of communications for The Washington Post, in a statement.)

Then on Wednesday, a new development: a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch attended the arraignment of the alleged rapist, Gerson Fuentes, 27, who police said confessed to raping the child on at least two occasions.

So the story was real, God help us all.

This wasn’t cause for gloating. When a child becomes pregnant before she’s lost her last baby tooth and the state she lives in tries to make her stay that way, there are no winners; we have all irreparably lost.

But we need to stop and reflect for a minute on how some people reacted to this story when it first became public. Because it was a disaster.

Beginning with the journalists: A physician in good standing had gone on the record to discuss the case of the 10-year-old. In every other medical story I can think of, a doctor sharing the story of a patient would be considered highly credible. If a surgeon describes removing a tumor for a broader article on new surgical techniques, we do not demand to talk to the cancer survivor. What, precisely, did my fellow members of the media think the doctor — bound by HIPAA — should have done? Provide a press release with the name and address of an underage sexual assault victim?

If members of the media thought the doctor was lying — and their dubious takes implied no better explanation — then they could have employed other investigative methods of verifying the story. That’s what the Star and Dispatch reporters apparently did. They combed public records and ended up sitting in the courtroom as a judge considered bail for the alleged perpetrator of this monstrous crime. (After the alleged rapist’s arrest, The Washington Post added an update to the Fact Checker story and published a news story about the arrest. The Wall Street Journal and the Daily Caller also published new pieces.)

Moving on to the attorney general: In an interview, Yost said: “I know the cops and prosecutors in this state. There’s not one of them that wouldn’t be turning over every rock, looking for this guy and they would have charged him. They wouldn’t leave him loose on the streets.” But this ignores the fact that sexual assault crimes are undercharged, that rapists do end up “loose on the streets,” all the time. Only about 30 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported to the police, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, and fewer than 1 percent end in a conviction.

Cops and prosecutors can turn over every rock they encounter, but that doesn’t address common scenarios when it comes to child rape. Young girls often aren’t attacked by strangers who hide under rocks; they are attacked by their own fathers, stepfathers and uncles, who coerce silence from their vulnerable victims by threatening to harm the girls’ families. It’s not rare that 10-year-olds are assaulted, it’s rare that their attackers are actually caught and punished.

Finally, ending with the politicians and pundits who decided that throwing a 10-year-old and her doctor under the bus was the best move for their political movement.

Of course they would prefer that the story was a fiction. Admitting that the story was true would require admitting that there are some cases in which abortion — in this case, induced by medication — is not only a necessity, it is a mercy. It is not only acceptable, it can be moral.

It is not life-ending for a potential child, it is lifesaving to an existing child, a 10-year-old girl, who had been raped, allegedly, by a man nearly three times her age and who now was facing the prospect of putting her small feet into stirrups and being ripped asunder by the act of labor. Maybe a C-section would have been employed. Would that have been better? Major surgery on a child who we forced to bear another child?

Apologies for the graphic imagery, but this is a graphic story.

A girl was assaulted, and then she was punished again by her government, and then she was doubted by journalists whose job it is to seek truth, and then she was used as a political pawn by politicians who were inconvenienced by the implications of her situation.

The truth came out in the end. But only after many grownups had made a wretched story about a child into a damning story about themselves.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.” Follow her on Twitter @MonicaHesse.

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