Police say an Ohio man has confessed to raping a 10-year-old girl who subsequently became pregnant and sought an abortion, the Columbus Dispatch reported on Wednesday. The Indianapolis Star had previously reported that the child, who was six weeks and three days pregnant, had to travel to Indiana to terminate the pregnancy due to Ohio’s highly restrictive abortion laws that came into force after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Right-wing news outlets promptly questioned the story, as did Ohio’s Republican attorney general, Dave Yost. In an appearance on Fox News’s Jesse Watters Primetime last week, Yost, who is anti-abortion, said there was “not a whisper” of a criminal investigation into the rape and cast doubt on the story’s veracity in further interviews. “Every day that goes by the more likely that this is a fabrication,” Yost told the USA Today’s Network Ohio bureau on Tuesday. “I’m not saying it could not have happened. What I’m saying to you is there is not a damn scintilla of evidence. And shame on the Indianapolis paper that ran this thing on a single source who has an obvious axe to grind.”
Yost later issued a “single-sentence statement” in response to the arrest of Gershon Fuentes, the Dispatch reported on Wednesday. “We rejoice anytime a child rapist is taken off the streets,” he said, adding later that he was “absolutely delighted that this monster has been taken off the street. If convicted, he should spend the rest of his life in prison.” It was not clear if Fuentes had entered a plea to the charge.
Wednesday’s news should encourage introspection on the part of Yost and others. Although a confession doesn’t prove the man is guilty, the Columbus police revealed that child-protective services reported the girl’s case to them last month, which corroborates the Indianapolis Star’s initial reporting. It also disproves the notion that the viral story was either a hoax or the product of journalistic malpractice, as Megan Fox of the right-wing outlet PJ Media suggested in tweets.
A narrative quickly spread. The story was “totally unverified,” the Daily Caller claimed.
To right-wing news pundits and commentators, the story proved the media’s bias against strict abortion laws. When President Joe Biden mentioned the story before signing an executive order on reproductive rights, conservative sources became further inflamed. Much of the outrage hinged on the observation that the Star had published a “single-source” story about the alleged rape, and that its source, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, appeared to be a supporter of abortion rights. “What we seem to have here is a presidential seal of approval on an unlikely story from a biased source that neatly fits the progressive narrative but can’t be confirmed,” the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal complained, hours before the Dispatch reported the arrest. “The abortion debate is intense and passions run high. But the American people deserve better from their President than an unproven story designed to aggravate those passions.” On Thursday, the Journal’s editorial board conceded that the story was accurate, while maintaining it was “unusual” that “no one in law enforcement stepped forward to confirm that the rape referral had been made, especially after the story had gone viral for days on the internet.”
Conservative complaints received a boost from the Washington Post. There, Glenn Kessler of the paper’s “Fact Checker” column wrote that Bernard, when reached, “declined to identify” either the doctor who referred the child to her care or the city in Ohio where the child resides. This by itself doesn’t seem to undermine Bernard’s credibility, given the subject is a minor rape victim, nor is it proof that the story is a lie. (Kessler, to his credit, never claimed the latter, though some on the right likely wish he had.) Now that an arrest proves the story was no hoax, we must contend with a different narrative altogether. This tragic viral story is an example of life after Roe. Pregnancy from rape is no hoax, either.
The right wing is morally unprepared for such a reality. It’s far easier to call a viral report into question than it is to say that a 10-year-old girl should be forced to bear a child. Yet that’s precisely the outcome their desired legal regime would produce. There will be more stories like this one, more ugly truths the right does not want to confront. The right’s reaction reflects the degree to which the pregnant person — adult or child — has become an abstraction to them. Empathy is incompatible with dehumanizing anti-abortion laws.