July 16, 2022

The whole point of passing laws is to change things. When a city council bans smoking in restaurants, its members likely thought they wouldn’t smell smoke the next time they dined out. When Congress bans Russian oil exports to the United States, lawmakers probably expected that Russian oil would not be exported to the U.S. Laws have unintended consequences, and sometimes enforcing them can be tricky. But the general principle is that when lawmakers sit down, write a bill, and pass it into law, they expect certain outcomes to happen.

That’s what made the reactions by conservatives this week to reports that a 10-year-old Ohio girl had to leave the state to end her pregnancy in Indiana so bizarre. The Indianapolis Star first reported the 10-year-old girl’s story on July 1, quoting by name the Indiana obstetrician who performed the procedure on her. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last month, it resonated as a horrifying outcome of the Ohio abortion law, as well as similar laws in other states, many of which had been written years ago to snap into place the minute Roe was overturned. President Joe Biden even cited this case when he denounced the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs last week.

After Biden made mention of the report, conservative news outlets and Republican elected officials began to openly suggest that the story was made up. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost told Fox News earlier this week that his office had heard “not a whisper” about the case from state or local law enforcement agencies, suggesting that it might be fictitious. Tucker Carlson, the network’s prime-time host, dismissed the story as “not true,” and other network employees expressed similar skepticism. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board devoted an editorial to discrediting the story on Tuesday, which suggested it was “too good to confirm.”

“The tale is a potent post-Roe tale of woe for those who want to make abortion a voting issue this fall,” the Journal claimed. “One problem: There’s no evidence the girl exists.” Those assertions fell apart almost immediately when police in Columbus, Ohio, announced on Wednesday that they had not only arrested a suspect in the case, but that he had also confessed to raping the 10-year-old girl in question. The Journal published a semi-defensive addendum where it said it “appreciate[d] our obligation to correct the record on the case.”

It’s unclear why Yost didn’t have at least an inkling that local authorities were investigating the case. I do not really expect Carlson to be honest with his viewers, at least in part because his employer has told courts that he isn’t. My expectations for other Fox News hosts are similarly low. The Journal’s editorial was slightly more surprising, if only because I personally know that it does some fact-checking and legwork for opinion pieces: An editor there once contacted me to ask if I am related to Ontario Premier Doug Ford for a 2019 column. (To my knowledge, I am not.)

But what’s really strange is that anti-abortion folks wanted to deny the story took place at all. Forcing a 10-year-old girl to travel to another state to end her pregnancy is the inevitable outcome of their stated policy preferences. For those who have fought for years to overturn Roe v. Wade and ensure that states could pass abortion bans without exceptions for rape and incest, this should be a sign that the laws they fought to pass are working as intended. So why aren’t they celebrating?

There was no plausible reason to think the story wasn’t true. The Indianapolis Star is a reliable news source; it quoted the obstetrician who performed the procedure by name. Under medical privacy laws, the doctor could not have disclosed the girl’s identity without her consent, which she was highly unlikely to give. And even if she had, every news outlet in America, from the Associated Press down to the smallest local papers, has a policy, either written or unwritten, not to identify the victims of child sexual assault. It beggars belief that Carlson, the other Fox News hosts who described it as a hoax, and the Journal editorial board did not know this: It is a canonical norm in the news-gathering industry.

More importantly, however, the 10-year-old’s plight is an entirely predictable outcome of the post-Dobbs state of affairs in Ohio. Abortion is prohibited after six weeks under current state law unless there is a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function,” according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. Determining what falls under that exception is left to “the physician’s reasonable medical judgment,” which is vague enough to have a potential chilling effect on medical practitioners. The newspaper noted that state law does not provide exceptions for rape or incest, thus necessitating the girl’s travel to neighboring Indiana to obtain the procedure.

It was also predictable not only as a logical by-product of the Ohio law specifically but also based on what life is like in other countries that have total or near-total bans on abortion. In Paraguay, where abortion is banned unless it threatens the mother’s life, health officials forced an 11-year-old girl to carry a pregnancy until she could obtain a cesarean section after she was raped by her stepfather in 2015. An 11-year-old girl in Argentina, which had similarly strict laws until recently, delivered a 23-week-old baby by cesarean section in 2019 after officials there refused to allow her to obtain an abortion. The young Argentine girl reportedly attempted suicide twice and begged doctors to “remove what the old man put inside me.”

It’s unclear exactly how often this phenomenon occurs—and even a single instance of it is heartrending—but available numbers suggest it occurs with some frequency. Amnesty International reported last year that in Paraguay, which ranks between New Jersey and Arizona in population, more than 1,000 girls who were 14 years old or younger gave birth in 2019 and early 2020. An analysis this week by The Columbus Dispatch found 50 reports of rape or sexual abuse toward girls 15 years old or younger in Columbus, Ohio, since May of this year. Using data from the Ohio Department of Health, the newspaper also reported that 306 girls who were 15 years old or younger obtained an abortion in that state between 2016 and 2020.

You do not need a medical degree to know that it is neither safe nor healthy for a 10-year-old or 11-year-old child to deliver a baby. But testing the limits of the maternal-health exception could be a dark new frontier for abortion litigation. Earlier this month, the Biden administration issued new guidance that said a federal law on emergency room care requires hospitals to provide medically necessary abortions even if a state law bans the procedure without a health exception. The state of Texas filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn that guidance on Thursday, arguing that the federal law in question did not apply to abortion even in life-threatening circumstances. Texas did stress, however, that the law applied when a medical emergency “threatens the life of the unborn child.”

Though their actions speak louder than their words, requiring 10-year-old children to carry their pregnancies to term is the stated preference of at least some anti-abortion leaders. Jim Bopp, an Indiana lawyer who serves as the general counsel for the National Right to Life organization, told Politico on Thursday that the model legislation he drafted for Indiana would have required the 10-year-old girl to continue the pregnancy. “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,” Bopp told the news outlet.

All of this makes it a bit puzzling why conservatives would dispute or distance themselves from the Ohio girl’s plight. If anything, as Bopp’s proposed legislation makes clear, they should be more frustrated that the girl would be able to obtain an abortion in another state. Republican senators even blocked a bill on Thursday that would protect the constitutional right to interstate travel to obtain the procedure, which will likely be the next major legal battle over abortion rights.

It seems like the denialism isn’t really about the 10-year-old girl in question but rather about obfuscating the natural consequences of overturning Roe. By eliminating the constitutional right to reproductive self-government and enacting abortion bans without rape or incest exemptions, anti-abortion activists have implicitly created a new right to take Roe’s place. Rapists can now rest assured that if they impregnate their victim, state and local governments will work tirelessly to ensure that the survivor—even if she is a 10-year-old girl—carries that pregnancy to term.

Anti-abortion folks may feel like this outcome is required by their moral beliefs and their policy preferences. But I suspect the average American voter, especially those with small children of their own, will be slightly less enthusiastic about it. I also suspect that the average conservative knows this. If nothing else, that might explain why so many of them tried so hard to pretend the consequences of their actions don’t exist.

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