Unimaginable abortion stories will become more common. Is American journalism ready?
As more states restrict or ban abortion, more raped girls will have the choice of crossing state lines for treatment or having babies while they are still at home. ‘primary school.
I wish that weren’t true. But the events of this week make it abundantly clear that if you can’t bear to believe it — even if it seems so impossible it requires a sincerely skeptical fact-checking treatment — it’s going to happen.
And the reporters who want to tell these stories (and the news agencies they work for) may have to abandon some conventional journalistic wisdom in order to give the stories the attention they deserve.
Last week, in response to the Supreme Court’s vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, President Joe Biden signed a decree in an attempt to protect access to abortion. In remarks at the time, Biden said, “Last week it was reported that a 10-year-old girl had been raped – 10 years old – and she was forced to travel out of the State to Indiana to seek to terminate the pregnancy and possibly save her life. The story he quoted was published by the Indianapolis Star July 1.
From this story:
On Monday, three days after the Supreme Court issued its groundbreaking decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Indianapolis, received a call from a colleague, a child abuse physician in Ohio.
Hours after the Supreme Court action, Buckeye State had banned all abortions after six weeks. However, this doctor had a 10-year-old patient in his office who was six weeks and three days pregnant.
Could Bernard help?
The two line story – written by Shari Rudavsky and Rachel Fradette – made headlines around the world. But the first reaction of above all of right new organizations — despite the fact that the doctor who performed the abortion was recorded saying it happened – was to try to debunk it. Why? I mean, partly because it’s horrible and we don’t want to believe that a 10 year old can get raped and get pregnant, because 10 year olds are babies themselves. (By the way, Covid seems to have Increase in precocious puberty around the world. Having your period “early” now means having it when you are. under 8 years old. People for whom a pregnant 10-year-old is gullible should keep this in mind.)
The debate over the story’s veracity began with a Washington Post “Fact Checker” column. In “Single-source story about 10-year-old child and abortion goes viral“, the post office Glenn Kesler wrote:
The only source cited for the anecdote was Bernard. She is recorded, but there is no indication that the newspaper made any further attempts to confirm her account. The story’s lead reporter, Shari Rudavsky, did not respond to a question asking if additional sources of supplies had been secured. A spokeswoman for Gannett provided a comment from Bro Krift, the newspaper’s editor: “Facts and sources regarding people crossing state lines into Indiana, including the 10-year-old girl, for abortions are clear. We have no additional comments at this time.”
Kessler notes that Bernard “refused to identify to the fact-checker his colleague or the city where the child was” and that after “spot-checking” he was unable to find any evidence that the rape had been reported in Ohio. He wrote:
This is a very difficult story to verify. Bernard is on file, but obtaining documentation or other confirmation is virtually impossible without details identifying the locality where the rape took place.
Kessler does not seem to consider the non-negative professional reasons a doctor might have for refusing to share the names of her colleagues, or why she might be reluctant to disclose (in addition, due to privacy laws, which are legally prohibited) her patient’s name and address who was raped to a national newspaper.
“An abortion by a 10-year-old child is quite rare,” Kessler notes. (Oh, that “by”.) “The Columbus Dispatch reported that in 2020, 52 people under the age of 15 had abortions in Ohio. Definitions of “rare” may vary, but if 52 young people under the age of 15 had abortions in Ohio in 2020, that’s one a week – and those are just abortions that were reported, during a pandemic where many abortion clinics were closed.
The Post column opened the door to worse takes. “With each passing day, the more likely it is to be a fabrication. I know the cops and the prosecutors in this state. There’s not one that wouldn’t turn over all the rocks, à la looking for this guy and they would have charged him,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said. told the Ohio Network office of USA Today on Tuesday. Picking up on Kessler’s “single source” criticism, Yost added, “Shame on the Indianapolis newspaper that published this single source thing that has an obvious ax to grind.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board called the episode “An abortion story too good to be confirmedas if there was something particularly juicy and delicious about this one (hint: it’s her age!)
Midday Wednesday, the Indianapolis Star published its sequel. A man from Ohio was charged with the rape of the 10-year-old child. In the story, which has four bylines, the reporters Tony Cook, Bethany Bruner, Monroe Trombleyand Dayeon Eom note that Columbus police “became notified of the girl’s pregnancy through a referral from Franklin County Children’s Services which was made by her mother on June 22”, that “the timeline given by police coincides with the account of Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an Indianapolis doctor who provides abortion services, shared, “and that the girl “had recently turned 10, which means she was likely pregnant at age 9” .
“This story is an interesting example of how widely news can be shared these days,” Kessler told me via email. “It was picked up by media around the world and it was based on a source – someone who was an activist on one side of the debate – with no apparent effort to back it up. This fact check added more context and was updated once there was new development.
I was the ONLY reporter in the courtroom this morning as the man accused of raping a 10-year-old girl, getting her pregnant, resulting in an abortion in Indiana, was arraigned.
This confirms that the case exists.https://t.co/eWvtBMxqZW
— Bethany Bruner (@bethany_bruner) July 13, 2022
“While reporting this story, the fact-checker had contacted the Franklin County agency to ask if such a reference had been made,” Kessler noted in a Wednesday update to his article. “Unlike similar Ohio County agencies we contacted, Franklin County officials did not offer a response.”
Kessler did not mention in the original column that some of the agencies he contacted did not respond. Sometimes journalists or their editors decide to leave certain details out of the stories. In a fact-check column, this can be because the extra information seems extraneous or blurs the column’s narrative.
In, say, a reported story about a child who has to travel out of state to have an abortion because abortion is illegal after six weeks in the state where she lives, there are other reasons why a publication may omit identifying details.
In America, after the end of Roe v. Wade, a brave source recorded in the final story will often be the best we can get. Obviously, journalists and editors must ensure that their reporting is accurate and truthful! But those who believe that the end of legal abortion in many states is newsworthy will have to figure out how to report and publish these stories with a few more constraints than they would like. If performing or receiving an abortion now counts as activism, well, then journalists will have to agree to quote “activists,” unless they mean only the side of the anti-abortion movement.
Countless abortion stories will never be told. It won’t be because they are lies. It will be because telling them is too risky, because patients, doctors, staff and volunteers risk being arrested for coming forward.
The facts will live in the shadows. The real life of women and children will continue. Even if their stories seem “too good” to be true. Even if you wish they weren’t.
A bouquet of roses is left outside the front door of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, Friday, July 8, 2022. The clinic was the only facility that performed abortions in the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)