In a matter of days, a case described in a news story in Indiana turned into a national flashpoint in the culture wars.
An Indianapolis Star story included the case of a pregnant 10-year-old who traveled out of state for an abortion after she was sexually assaulted. The support for the report was the doctor who performed the procedure, quoted by name. The story quickly caught on in national media as an example of the need for accessible abortion care — and was just as quickly seized on by conservative media and Republican politicians who said the doctor’s words were not enough proof, questioning whether the story was even true, and that it was another example of agenda-driven coverage from mainstream news outlets.
The outrage churned for a week. Then, on Tuesday, an Ohio man was arrested and charged with the rape of a minor. But rather than putting the issue to rest, the revelation gave a further boost to what has become one of the first major news stories of the post-Roe era. It’s not expected to be the last.
“What makes this type of thing so engaging, I think, for conservative news consumers is that it puts all the focus on questioning the motives of liberal media and political figures,” Anthony Nadler, an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, wrote in an email.
This obscures any focus on the actual victim’s experience or what her experience tells us about political choices about abortion rights.
-Anthony Nadler , associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania
It’s a dynamic that also points to how the ongoing culture war around abortion can quickly become about anything other than the people at the center of these stories. As Laura Hazard Owen put it in an article for Harvard University’s NiemanLab: Unimaginable abortion stories will become more common. Is American journalism ready?”
Such a frenzy can take away from the crux of the story.
“This obscures any focus on the actual victim’s experience or what her experience tells us about political choices about abortion rights,” Nadler noted.
The news cycle began on July 1, when the Indianapolis Star published an article highlighting how patients from neighboring states seeking abortions in Indiana, where abortion remains legal following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The article mentioned the pregnant child as an example of patients traveling from states like Ohio, where abortion is banned after the sixth week of pregnancy.
The case of the 10-year-old girl was widely re-reported across mainstream national outlets in the following days. Abortion rights activists denounced the cruelty of abortion bans, citing the story as a shocking example of the need for accessible abortion care.
Questions about the story began gaining attention on July 5, most notably in a Twitter thread from Megan Fox, a writer for conservative media outlet PJ Media. Fox’s questions sparked coverage from some conservative influencers and media, and intensified after President Joe Biden mentioned it during an event last Friday, in which he signed an executive order to safeguard abortion rights.
“This isn’t some imagined horror, it’s already happening,” Biden said. “10 years old, raped, six weeks pregnant. Already traumatized, then forced to travel to another state.”
That same day, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, tweeted that “it looks like the story was fake to begin with.” Noem’s tweet along with a Washington Post analysis published the day after Biden’s comments about the 10-year-old further galvanized right-wing media. Fact-checker Glenn Kessler noted that Dr. Caitlin Bernard was the sole source cited for the story, and reported that he could not corroborate the story with the several Ohio-based child service agencies he contacted.
By Monday, the story had become a hot topic among mainstream conservative media figures from Fox News, The Daily Wire, the New York Post and more. An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal decried the story as a “fanciful tale,” criticizing Biden for repeating an “unlikely story from a biased source that neatly fits the progressive narrative on abortion but can’t be confirmed.” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, wrote in a now-deleted tweet that the story was “another lie.”
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, claimed that there was “not a whisper” of the girl’s case in the state’s centralized law enforcement system. Yost doubled down the next day, telling USA Today’s Ohio network bureau, “Every day that goes by, the more likely that this is a fabrication.”
But less than 24 hours after Yost’s comments, 27-year-old Gerson Fuentes was arrested and charged with rape of a minor. Franklin County detective Jeffrey Huhn testified that Fuentes confessed to raping the 10-year-old at least twice. The girl had an abortion in Indianapolis on June 30.
Following Fuentes’ arrest, Yost stated, “I am grateful for the diligent work of the Columbus Police Department in securing a confession and getting a rapist off the street.”
Tuesday’s news of charges filed in connection to the assault have not marked the end of the story. Zignal Labs, a company that analyzes social media, broadcast, traditional media and online conversation, found that response to news of the arrest surpassed the furor around initial coverage.
Heidi Julien, a professor of information science who specializes in digital literacy at the University of Buffalo, said even though the report was substantiated, there should be little expectations of people changing their minds.
“If you construct an identity around a particular political persuasion and a particular set of news sources, and you construct a reality that is an ‘us against them,’ kind of stance, then you can’t make space for any right or any truth on the other side,” she said.
She added that “egregious” cases like that of the 10-year-old in Ohio are “very, very challenging” to those vehemently against abortion rights — which is why casting doubt and attacking media reporting on it is such common practice among many conservative pundits. It’s easier to deny that abortion patients like the 10-year-old girl exist, she said, to justify that abortion should be “limited at all costs.”
“The bottom line is that all of us tend to operate in our echo chambers,” Julien continued. “And we tend to discount information or news that comes from political perspectives that differ from our own.”
Nadler noted that the pivot to focus on the doctor and also the immigration status of the person accused of the assault keep the focus on a conservative trope that liberals are quick to abandon their ideals to make political points. That has coincided with some reticence from conservative media to focus on the issue of abortion.
“I think a lot of conservative media, particularly what you might call mainstream conservative media has been a little bit hesitant to dive into a hardcore ‘we need to end abortion’ discourse.”
CORRECTION (July 22, 2022, 8:40 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the day of Gerson Fuentes’ arrest. He was arrested on Tuesday, July 12, not Wednesday, July 13.