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Opinion | A 10-Year-Old Endures the Predictable Result of an Abortion Ban

Not long after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, an Indiana obstetrician and gynecologist named Caitlin Bernard told The Indianapolis Star about a call she’d gotten from a doctor in Ohio. The Ohio doctor had a 10-year-old patient who was six weeks and three days pregnant. An Ohio law banning abortion after fetal cardiac activity can be detected — usually around the sixth week of pregnancy — had just gone into effect, so the girl needed to cross state lines for care. The report, being illustrative of the ghoulish impact of abortion prohibitions, went viral, and Joe Biden mentioned it in a speech.

The right, however, quickly convinced itself that the tale was dubious and probably false. The conservative website PJ Media claimed, last Friday, that the account had “many of the elements of a hoax.” On Monday, Ohio’s Republican attorney general, Dave Yost, went on Fox News to say that he knew of no police reports about a 10-year-old rape victim. “The more you learn about this, the more unbelievable it becomes,” said the host, Jesse Watters.

A Wall Street Journal editorial on Tuesday described the report as “fanciful,” noting that “no one has been able to identify the girl or where she lives,” as if that information should be public. “Hey, so did they catch the guy who raped the Ohio ten year old yet?” the National Review writer Michael Brendan Dougherty tweeted last week, seemingly sarcastically.

The answer to Dougherty’s question is now yes. Officials say that a 27-year-old named Gerson Fuentes was arrested on Tuesday and has confessed. The children’s services department in Columbus alerted the police about the rape in June. Rather than apologize to Caitlin Bernard for calling her a liar, many on the right have started attacking her for not reporting the rape herself, even though the police already knew about it by the time she saw the girl.

On Wednesday, Watters displayed a photograph of Bernard and said, “According to reporting from PJ Media, she has a history of failing to report child abuse cases.” Then Indiana’s attorney general, Todd Rokita, appeared on Watters’s show, describing Bernard as an “abortion activist acting as a doctor,” and announcing she was under investigation.

It looks like the only thing Bernard did wrong, though, is to embarrass Republicans. On Thursday afternoon, The Star reported that Bernard reported the abortion to the Indiana Department of Health and the Department of Child Services, as state law requires. In a statement, her lawyer said she’s considering legal action against Rokita and others who have “smeared” her.

This whole hideous episode has demonstrated the extent to which conservatives are unwilling to grapple with the reality of the abortion regime they are imposing on much of the country. There is nothing wrong with seeing a single-source news report and deciding you want to withhold judgment until more information emerges. But that’s not what happened here. Instead there was sneering incredulity, as if a raped 10-year-old being denied an abortion wasn’t an inevitable consequence of an abortion ban without a rape exception.

Surely right-wingers, who love to accuse their enemies of pedophilia, understand that children are raped in America. The Columbus Dispatch, which broke the news of Fuentes’s arrest, reported that there were 52 abortions performed on children 15 and under in Ohio in 2020, roughly one a week in just one state.

In countries that have banned abortion, there have been a number of high-profile cases of very young pregnant rape victims. In Nicaragua in 2003, feminist activists fought to help a 9-year-old obtain a therapeutic abortion. When it emerged that she’d been raped by her stepfather, the activists faced legal harassment over accusations that they’d helped cover up the crime.

Just this year, a judge in Brazil tried to block an abortion for an 11-year-old who had been raped. “Do you want to choose the baby’s name?” he asked her. “Would the baby’s father agree to give it up for adoption? Would you bear it a little longer?” Why would anyone think that similar laws won’t lead to similar results here?

It’s been especially maddening to see people on the right smugly insist that the girl in Ohio could have had a legal abortion in her state. In a New York Post column casting doubt on the story, the law professor Jonathan Turley wrote, “Ohio says abortions are allowed ‘to prevent a serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman,’ which would certainly be the case for a 10-year-old.”

His certainty is entirely unearned. The Ohio law actually says that abortion is permitted only in cases of “medical emergency” requiring the “immediate performance or inducement of an abortion” in order to prevent death or irreversible bodily harm that “delay in the performance or inducement of the abortion would create.” This language is vague and open to interpretation. It’s obvious to me that a pregnant 10-year-old is an immediate medical emergency. But if you were an abortion provider in Ohio, would you stake your career, and perhaps your freedom, on prosecutors like Yost giving you the benefit of the doubt?

“If states write laws that are completely vague about what the requirements are, they can still have abortion on the books, but have an environment in which no physician is willing to provide it,” said the N.Y.U. law professor Melissa Murray.

Roe has been gone for less than three weeks, and the utterly predictable outcomes are already apparent. Today.com reported on a woman in Arizona who learned at 21 weeks that her wanted pregnancy was unviable, but whose doctor is unable to induce an early delivery because of the Supreme Court’s decision. “I really can only describe it as feeling trapped,” she said.

As The Los Angeles Times reported, some patients are being denied methotrexate, a drug used to treat certain cancers and autoimmune conditions, because it’s an abortifacient. Medical professionals aren’t necessarily wrong to worry; according to the newspaper, “In Texas, dispensing methotrexate to someone who uses it to induce a miscarriage after 49 days of gestation is a felony.”

Abortions after about six weeks have been illegal in Texas since S.B. 8, the so-called abortion bounty law, took effect last year, and women have come forward to speak about the trauma they’ve had to endure. NPR reported on a woman named Anna whose water broke on her wedding day, when she was 19 weeks pregnant. The fetus had no chance of surviving, and Anna was at high risk of hemorrhaging or developing sepsis. But doctors said they couldn’t terminate the pregnancy until either the fetus’s heart stopped or her condition worsened. She ended up spending thousands of dollars to fly to Colorado for an abortion, sitting in the front row so she could reach the bathroom quickly in case she had to deliver.

If none of this is what anti-abortion lawmakers intended, nothing is stopping them from amending their laws. Ohio’s statute includes examples of medical emergencies in which abortion is permitted, including pre-eclampsia and prematurely ruptured membranes. If Republicans think “being a child rape victim” ought to be included as well, they should add it.

But they’re unlikely to, because the anti-abortion movement would object. On Thursday, James Bopp, general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, told Politico that under model legislation he’s written, the Ohio girl would have been forced to carry her pregnancy to term. “She would have had the baby, and as many women who have had babies as a result of rape, we would hope that she would understand the reason and ultimately the benefit of having the child,” he said.

This is, at least, honest. The fury directed at Caitlin Bernard suggests other conservatives aren’t as willing to admit what their laws do.

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