How a 10-Year-Old Rape Victim Who Traveled for an Abortion Became Part of a Political Firestorm

·6 min read
Abortion Child Rape Arrest
Abortion Child Rape Arrest

Dr. Caitlin Bernard, a reproductive healthcare provider, speaks during an abortion rights rally on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. Credit - Jenna Watson–The Indianapolis Star/AP

The case of a 10-year-old girl who had to travel from her home in Ohio to Indiana to receive an abortion after being raped has become national news—and a major political issue following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The child, then nearly six-and-a-half weeks pregnant, could not legally receive an abortion in Ohio due to the state’s “fetal heartbeat” law, which went into effect after the Court abolished the constitutional right to an abortion. Her doctor phoned Indianapolis physician Dr. Caitlin Bernard, who agreed to perform the procedure. Bernard went public with the story in the Indianapolis Star.

The response from both sides of the abortion debate has been uncompromising. For advocates of abortion rights—including President Biden—the girl was an example of how new abortion restrictions were already harming the most vulnerable people.

But abortion opponents have doubled down. Jim Bopp, an Indiana lawyer and general counsel for the National Right to Life, believes the girl should have carried the child 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,” Bopp told Politico on Thursday. “We don’t think, as heart-wrenching as those circumstances are, we don’t think we should devalue the life of the baby because of the sins of the father.”

Here’s what to know about the case:

What do we know about the case?

The Columbus Police Department was informed about the child’s pregnancy on June 22, after the Franklin County’s Children Services agency filed a complaint, NPR reports.

Officers have since already arrested Gerson Fuentes, 27, who confessed to raping the girl at least twice. He is currently held at the Franklin County Jail on a $2 million bond. Detectives investigating the case collected Fuentes’ DNA to confirm his paternity, and he faces a potential life sentence if found guilty.

Why did it become national news?

The case was brought to national attention after Biden delivered impassioned remarks while signing an executive order to better protect access to abortion in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on July 8.

Biden called the Supreme Court’s decision “extreme.” Since Roe has been overturned, four states have banned abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest, unless the mother’s life is at risk. “This isn’t some imagined horror,” Biden said. “It’s already happening. Just last week it was reported that a 10-year-old girl was a rape victim. And she was forced to have to travel outside the state to Indiana to seek to terminate the pregnancy.”

Biden’s executive order asked federal agencies to find policies that would allow FDA-approved medication for abortion to remain accessible. It also sought to protect patient privacy for those seeking reproductive medical services.

Many conservative lawmakers and media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, reacted to Biden’s speech by casting doubt that the 10-year-old girl’s case even existed. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost on FOX News stated that there was not a “whisper anywhere” of the 10-year-old rape victim.

That changed after Columbus police announced the arrest of a suspect in the case.

How are officials reacting?

Indiana’s current law allows for an abortion up to 22 weeks of pregnancy, but that is likely to change following the state’s special legislative session on July 25. Both chambers of the General Assembly have conservative supermajorities, and Republican leaders have promised to increase abortion restrictions. While Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb called the 10-year-old’s case a “horrific example,” he did not specify the type of restrictions residents can expect.

Dr. Meera Shah, the Medical Director of Whole Women’s Health Alliance in South Bend, Ind., expects abortion to be outlawed entirely in the Hoosier state, and says that even exceptions like rape or incest do not protect victims. “These laws require that [patients] disclose or have some recognition of what they’ve experienced on a very specific timeline in order to get care,” Shah says. “That requires the patient to disclose that they were raped or experienced incest. And for those of us that have worked with survivors of trauma, survivors of sexual abuse, we know that oftentimes that trauma gets internalized and is wrapped around with shame and stigma.”

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita announced on Fox News on July 13 that he was launching an investigation to determine whether Bernard filed a report within three days of the procedure, as is required by state law for abortions done on patients under the age of 16.

The next day, however, the Star acquired documents from the Indiana Department of Health showing she did file the proper paperwork.

Bopp, the anti-abortion rights lawyer, has been involved in writing model anti-abortion legislation to be used by state lawmakers. His model legislation would have prevented the victim from obtaining an abortion.

What does this mean for other rape survivors?

Across the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that nearly 3 million women have experienced rape-related pregnancy in their lifetimes, with an estimated one in nine girls under the age of 18 experiencing rape, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).

And while data about rape-related pregnancy is limited, a 2020 CDC report found that more than 1,700 infants were born to children aged 10 to 14. The statistics are a cause of great concern, experts say.

Research by the Commonwealth Fund shows that while maternal deaths are largely preventable, there are approximately 17 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births in America, compared to the 8.6 maternal deaths seen in neighboring Canada. “Pregnancy for most adult women can kill them,” says Michele Goodwin, author of Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood. “[If] we think of this as a child, whose organs become far more vulnerable, whose body has not developed to be able to handle nine months of that kind of pressure. Then one can only see it as being cruel to enforce those kinds of mandates.”

Since May 9, there have been 50 police reports of rape or sexual abuse for girls aged 15 or younger in Columbus, Ohio, alone—though experts say confidentiality laws mean some reports may not be included in that figure. Experts also point out that most sexual assaults go un-reported. The Ohio Department of Health has indicated that there were 52 abortions that took place in children age 15 or younger in 2020, down from the 63 that were recorded in 2019.

And abortion rates for teens are higher than for adults, with an estimated 28% of pregnancies for people aged 15-17 ending in an abortion. The strict new abortion laws, Goodwin says, will disproportionately affect the socially economically vulnerable, and especially low-income women of color that live in states like Alabama, with one of the most restrictive abortion policies and the highest teen birth rates.

Experts predict teen birth rates will begin to rise. Goodwin likens the young girls who will be forced to travel to receive abortions to refugees. “Refugees are individuals who have a very legitimate claim to try to save their lives from the tyranny that is being imposed by a government in another state where they will be harmed,” she says.

Correction, July 17

The original version of this story misstated what Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita said to Fox News. Rokita said he would investigate to see if Dr. Caitlin Bernard failed to report an abortion she performed in Indiana, not that she did fail to report it.