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The right-wing smear campaign against a doctor who helped a 10-year-old rape victim
On July 1, the Indianapolis Star reported that a 10-year-old rape victim was forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana to receive an abortion. The trip was necessary because of the Supreme Court's decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion. Shortly after the Supreme Court's ruling, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) issued an executive order putting into force a 2019 law that banned nearly all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The 10-year-old was reportedly six weeks and three days pregnant.
There was never any reason to doubt the accuracy of this story. (It was briefly mentioned in Monday's edition of Popular Information.) The lead author was Shari Rudavsky, who has been the Health and Medical Reporter at the Indianapolis Star for 18 years. Rudavsky's source for the story was Dr. Caitlin Bernard, the Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist who performed the procedure. Bernard told Rudavsky she received the referral from "a child abuse doctor in Ohio."
It was a harrowing example of the implications of the Supreme Court decision, which imposed additional trauma on a young girl who had been assaulted. But instead of grappling with the impacts of Ohio's law, right-wing media and political figures attacked Bernard's credibility and Rudavsky's reporting methods.
An editorial published in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday evening called Rudavsky's report a "fanciful tale" that was "too good to confirm." Ignoring Bernard's first-hand account, the editorial claimed there is "no evidence the girl exists." The piece criticizes Bernard for not providing details that could expose the identity of the 10-year-old including "where the alleged crime occurred" and "the Ohio doctor who referred the case." They suggested that Bernard perpetrated a hoax because she has "a long history of abortion activism in the media."
On Fox News, host Emily Compagno said she found it "offensive" that supporters of abortion rights invented a "fake" rape victim.
Tucker Carlson, Fox News' top host, flatly asserted that the story of the 10-year-old girl who had to travel to Indiana to get an abortion was "not true."
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost appeared on another Fox News show, Jesse Watters Primetime, to attack the Indianapolis Star report. "We have regular contact with prosecutors and local police and sheriffs — not a whisper anywhere," Yost said. In a subsequent interview with USA Today, Yost said that there was "not a damn scintilla of evidence" to support the story, which he described as a likely "fabrication." Watters himself concluded that the story "fits a pretty dangerous pattern of politically timed disinformation."
The story, however, was not a fabrication. On Tuesday, a 27-year-old man from Columbus, Ohio, Gershon Fuentes, was arrested and "charged with impregnating a 10-year-old Ohio girl." According to the police, Fuentes "confessed to raping the child on at least two occasions."
Detective Jeffrey Huhn testified at Fuentes’ arraignment on Wednesday that "Columbus police were made aware of the girl's pregnancy through a referral by Franklin County Children Services that was made by her mother on June 22." Huhn also said that the girl "underwent a medical abortion in Indianapolis" on June 30.
Fuentes is now being held on a $2 million bond.
Following Fuentes' arrest, Yost released a statement that did not acknowledge his error or apologize for smearing Bernard and Rudavsky on national television.
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Jim Jordan tries to cover his tracks
On Twitter, Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH) told his 2.9 million followers that Bernard was lying.
After Fuentes was arrested, Jordan simply deleted his tweet. He offered no apology or acknowledgment of his error. He quickly pivoted to tweeting stories about Jill Biden's "breakfast tacos" gaffe.
The New York Post quietly changes its headline
The New York Post, which, like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, published a piece by law professor Jonathan Turley under the headline "Activist tale of 10-year-old rape victim’s abortion looks like a lie."
Sometime after publication, the New York Post changed the headline to "The 10-year-old rape victim’s abortion leaves a number of glaring questions." As of Wednesday afternoon, the story has not been updated to reflect that Bernard's "tale" was completely true.
The Washington Post's role in the smear
The smear campaign against Bernard and Rudavsky appears to have originated on July 5 with a viral Twitter thread by Megan Fox, who works for the far-right website PJ Media. Fox's thread was retweeted by right-wing personalities like Benny Johnson and Adam Baldwin.
But it was mainstreamed by Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post's "fact checker." Fox publicly accused Kessler of stealing her work without credit.
Kessler derided Rudavsky's report as based merely on an "anecdote" from one source. He chastised Rudavsky for not responding to "a query asking whether additional sourcing was obtained." The Indianapolis Star did respond to Kessler on Rudavsky's behalf, correctly asserting that the sourcing for the story was clear.
Kessler did not acknowledge that many papers, including the Washington Post, publish stories based on anonymous sources, which are inherently less unreliable. Here, the Indianapolis Star relied on an on-the-record source with first-hand knowledge of the incident.
Kessler noted that anyone who knew about the rape of a 10-year-old would have to report it to child welfare authorities in Ohio, but Bernard would not provide details about the location of the incident. (Any additional details provided by Bernard could have exposed the identity of the child, violating her medical privacy.)
So Kessler took matters into his own hands. "As a spot check, we contacted child services agencies in some of Ohio’s most populous cities, including Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo," Kessler wrote. "None of the officials we reached were aware of such a case in their areas."
Kessler's report was quickly absorbed into the Fox News echo system as further proof that the story was a lie.
The incident was, in fact, reported to Franklin County Children Services on June 22. After Fuentes was arrested, Kessler updated his story, noting that he also contacted Franklin County Children Services but did not hear back.
Kessler, whose job is to identify errors by others, did not acknowledge his own mistake in questioning a story that was completely true. Instead, after Fuentes confessed, Kessler said that whether the Indiannaplis Star should have gotten a second source was "beyond the purview of the Fact Checker."
The motivation for the smear campaign
There is a reason why so many people, particularly on the right, were eager to push the idea that Bernard's story was a lie. If they acknowledged the story was true they would have to answer this question: Do you believe that a 10-year-old rape victim should be forced to give birth?
This is not hypothetical. After the Supreme Court's decision, trigger laws in eleven other states (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas) ban abortion with no exception for rape or incest.
It's also not a question the right-wing appears prepared to answer, even now. On Wednesday evening, Tucker Carlson and quickly shifted their attention to reports that Fuentes is an undocumented immigrant.