WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans who oppose abortion rights are struggling to talk about the horrific case of a 10-year-old rape victim who had to travel across state lines to Indiana to get an abortion because of strict laws in her home state, Ohio.
The case made international headlines after President Joe Biden decried Republican policies that forced the "already traumatized" child to have to travel out of state to terminate the pregnancy. Republicans and right-wing media criticized Biden, suggesting the case had been fabricated, only for a suspect to be arrested days later.
Confronted with the reality of the case, GOP lawmakers interviewed Thursday appeared to be grappling with how to respond — from confusion to blaming the media.
Many expressed shock that it was even biologically possible for the 10-year-old child to become pregnant. Some said they were torn “morally” about whether abortions should be allowed in cases of incest or rape, as in the Ohio case. And others tried to turn the conversation to the undocumented immigrant who prosecutors allege raped the girl.
“I’m amazed a 10-year-old got pregnant. … You really wrestle with that. That’s a tough one,” Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, said Thursday.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., said, “I can’t imagine being 10 years old” and pregnant, adding: “I don’t think I was even able to have children when I was 10 years old. … It’s just awful. It’s awful all the way around.”
Said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas: “I’m a pro-life guy, OK? And God’s in charge on this. ... We're all God's children. This is a tough call, and I don’t know if I know that answer right now, because now you’ve got another baby involved: She’s pregnant. … She’s a baby.”
Just days earlier, several high-profile Republicans said the story was fake, using it to accuse Democrats of overreach in their response to the Supreme Court's ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, said the story was likely to be a “fabrication.” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, tweeted “Another lie. Anyone surprised?” in response to a Washington Examiner story about Yost’s saying he had found no evidence of the young rape victim.
Jordan quietly deleted the tweet Wednesday after prosecutors charged Gershon Fuentes, 27, who court documents say confessed to the rape.
Asked whether he regretted calling the story a lie, Jordan blamed Fuentes, an undocumented immigrant, and the news media.
“We didn’t know that an illegal alien did this heinous act. We never doubted the child,” Jordan said. The lie was “the news headline … the headline from your profession. We doubted Joe Biden, which is usually a smart thing to do, but we didn’t know that this illegal immigrant had done this terrible thing. He should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Williams, who represents the border state of Texas, said: “Where’s the conversation about an illegal person doing this? How do you defend this? How do you defend this guy who came over illegally, and we’ve got 5 million of them over here?”
Biden and White House officials had read about the case in The Indianapolis Star, which first reported the girl's story on July 1. That story quoted Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an Indianapolis OB-GYN, who said she got a call from an Ohio doctor specializing in child abuse who had a 10-year-old patient who was six weeks pregnant. Because Ohio made abortions after six weeks illegal in the wake of the Roe decision, the girl had to travel.
Biden said in his speech about protecting abortion access last week: “She was forced to have to travel out of the state to Indiana to seek to terminate the pregnancy and maybe save her life. Ten years old — 10 years old — raped, six weeks pregnant, already traumatized, was forced to travel to another state.”
The case touches on several hot-button issues being debated by policymakers in Washington and in state capitals around the country: abortion rights, immigration and interstate travel.
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, a Republican former member of Congress, said he is investigating the Indianapolis doctor who performed the abortion.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., one of the leading voices in Congress in favor of abortion rights, said: “This is a case that will have to be challenged in court by those who support abortion rights. I am looking out for the welfare of this child. No 10-year-old should have to even undergo such a procedure, but then to have to go out of state to do it is cruel beyond belief.”
The House will vote Friday on Chu’s bill that would restore the right to an abortion, as well as another bill to protect Americans who travel to receive reproductive health care. Neither has enough support in the Senate.
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who opposes abortion rights, said the 10-year-old’s situation represents “a high-profile kind of case describing why something might need to be done” about the issue of abortion statewide in Indiana.
“I’m going to wait to see what my state actually puts into legislation, probably, before I comment on any of that,” he said. “I’m just glad it’s going back to the states.”
Lesko, a former state legislator who is a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, said she backs an exception for abortion when the mother’s life is at risk. But she said she is undecided about whether exceptions should be granted in cases of rape or incest.
“This is obviously a very difficult moral question. And so I struggle with it, quite frankly,” Lesko said of the Ohio case. “I have a close friend who was raped and had the baby and has told me that she is thankful every day that — she was a minor, and she decided to have the child, because it’s a blessing. …
“Obviously, I feel awful for the 10-year-old. … I am more in favor of definitely the life of the mother, and I’m still morally struggling over the other ones.”
Gibbs, the House member from Ohio, argued that technological advances since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision show that “a fetus is a human being.”
But Gibbs also wondered whether the Ohio girl’s life could have been endangered had she carried out the pregnancy. Like Lesko, he backs exceptions for abortions when mothers’ lives are at risk.
“First you have to ask the question, since she’s 10 years old and be able to go full term with the pregnancy, would her life be in danger? I don’t know. There are medical questions there because of her age — I’m just raising it as a thought,” Gibbs said in an interview.
“In this case, if there was going to be an abortion, there would have to be a medical need on behalf of the 10-year-old mother," he added.
Moderate GOP Rep. David Joyce of Ohio said the case of the 10-year-old girl is tragic but straightforward: She had a right to get an abortion given the horrible circumstances.
“It’s always been my position that, as a former prosecutor, in instances of rape, incest or mother’s health that there should be exceptions to the rule,” Joyce said. “While I’m pro-life, I understand that I couldn’t fathom having to carry a baby to term in which we were the victim of rape.”