IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ohio's 10-year-old victim forced Republicans to look at their own cruelty. They blinked.

The right’s initial skepticism about the Ohio case was bad. The quest to prove the story still doesn’t mean what it clearly means is pure moral bankruptcy.
Gov. Mike DeWine signs the "heartbeat" abortion bill in Columbus, Ohio, on April 11, 2019.
Gov. Mike DeWine signs the "heartbeat" abortion bill in Columbus, Ohio, on April 11, 2019.Fred Squillante / Columbus Dispatch via AP file

You have heard of the 10-year-old child (and rape victim) who was forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana to receive an abortion. The story received mass media attention because it brought to tragic life the kind of horrific hypothetical once used to illustrate the possible outcomes of a post-Roe v. Wade America.

Anti-abortion advocates have achieved their victory through a combination of hypocrisy and outright fabulism.

The right’s initial skepticism about the Ohio case was born of ugly and telling cynicism. Their continued quest to somehow prove the story doesn’t mean what it clearly means (that banning abortion will lead to pointless suffering) illustrates their moral bankruptcy. Republicans know their position is extreme and unpopular. Anti-abortion advocates have achieved their victory through a combination of hypocrisy and outright fabulism, assuring more moderate voters that worst-case scenarios are far-fetched and no uncomfortable questions need to be addressed. Yet today, faced with the outcome of the laws they supported, this extended round of “but, but!” shows that those who call themselves “pro-life” don’t care about pregnant women in real terms.

They certainly don’t care about the elementary school student in question, or don’t care very much. Anyone who did would not heap trauma upon trauma by indulging in the frivolous legal actions and inane speculation that’s now defined the conversation among “pro-life” lawmakers and pundits.

For many conservatives, those first reports out of Ohio and Indiana cooled the smug afterglow they’ve been basking in since the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization came down. Skeptical grumbling about the details (Jesse Watters opined that it “fits a pretty dangerous pattern of politically timed disinformation”) quickly became outright denial: Tucker Carlson deemed it “not true.”

Now that a suspect has been arrested and new details buttress the initial reporting, there’s been a swift if not exactly graceful pivot to, well, anything else. Anti-abortion Republicans and their supporters are face to face with the consequences of the laws they called for, and now they’re flailing to find something, anything that distracts from a dramatic example of the cruelty that abortion bans always create.

These hapless, desperate feints include ginning up outrage at the reported immigration status of the suspect as well as even more convoluted conspiracy theories. Megan Fox is the PJ Media employee who raised social media whispering to the attention of misinformation specialists like Carlson. She appeared on Glenn Beck’s radio show Thursday to do a round of “just asking questions.” On Twitter, Beck wondered "who gave this story to the left?” Fox put it out there that the Ohio police may have been covering up the original crime (“Who was keeping it from the press?”) — because they knew the suspect was undocumented and “Columbus is a sanctuary city.” She also found it suspicious that there was only one reporter at the courthouse to cover the arrest.

None of these fuzzy not-quite-assertions have anything to do with the Ohio law that forced a child to undergo more torment than was already forced upon her. Imagine growing up to learn that a loud chorus of people first denied your pain — and then refused to apologize for doubting it.

Not content with potentially ruining one young life, the party that campaigns on limited government explicitly tried to engineer a show trial. The Indiana attorney general proudly said he’d prosecute the doctor who performed the procedure for “failing to report” an underage abortion if that were the case. But she did.

All of this vamping betrays a central insecurity in the purest anti-abortion position, which is to say: It is unpopular to force children to give birth. It is also immoral. And anti-abortion apologists must know that their position is immoral, unless they truly and genuinely believe that no one under the age of 16 ever gets pregnant. In which case, well, they’re not a part of this debate.

If the advocates of forced birth were truly confident in their beliefs, they would be proud of what happened to this girl: The law worked exactly as intended. If they didn’t want to force children to give birth, then they really shouldn’t support a law that all but guarantees it will happen.

Indeed, perhaps the most surprising development in this fit of excuse-making is how many on the anti-abortion side are secretly pro-choice. I refer to those who now say that the Ohio law is more generous than the rest of us thought: She didn’t have to leave the state; her abortion would fall under the exemption of “life of the mother.” Not because the pregnancy was high-risk, just … well, obviously it would. Ohio Attorney General David Yost put it this way: “Ohio’s heartbeat law has a medical emergency exception broader than just the life of the mother.”

Those who want to ban abortion are, again, fully aware of the hypothetical situations where an abortion is a humane action.

It’s a bit of silver lining, I suppose. Welcome to the side of the aisle where we believe that “life of the mother” isn’t just defined in purely physical terms.

But I don’t think this is what Yost and his compatriots meant to say. I think they are just unwilling to acknowledge that they’ve been fighting for years to make children have babies.

The text of the law they support is clear. It says that the exception only applies in the case of a “medically diagnosed condition” and warns this definition “does not include a condition related to the woman’s mental health.”

The only good thing that can come out of the anti-abortion side’s sad performance this week is that it dramatizes the futility of “exceptions” to the abortion law. Those who want to ban abortion are, again, fully aware of the hypothetical situations where an abortion is a humane action. Exceptions for the “life of the mother” or rape and incest exist to preemptively assuage their guilt. Certainly, they aren’t about providing care to the women in the “exception” category. If they were, the laws would be written with clear guidelines for providers to follow and perhaps even (hang on with me here) funds and other forms of support for those women!

But abortion exemptions are not about actually granting mercy. They are about plausible deniability.

That is true for all exceptions. Exceptions for rape and incest won’t prevent women from seeking abortions in heart-wrenching and potentially headline-grabbing situations. Advocates for access to abortion sometimes use the example of a woman who is pregnant as the result of incest or rape but feels unsafe revealing who the father is. Does that seem unlikely among the millions of U.S. women who became pregnant after being raped?

You, the one who believes a rape exception means no woman will have to unwillingly bear the child of her attacker: When a survivor walks into that clinic, what evidence will she have to bring with her? Who will get to be the judge? What if the patient shades the truth in order to get this life-altering care — who’s going to be the one to investigate? Who’s going to be the one to blame if somehow the story falls short of what “rape” means to that person? How many doctors and mothers will you send to jail? How many state resources are you willing to throw at enforcing this exemption? Will it be more than the state spends on sex education?

And what about all those states where abortion providers practically don’t exist anymore, because these rape and incest “exceptions” are so preposterously vague that no abortion provider will take the risk of doing the procedure? There are at least four of them.

Reproductive justice advocates are the only ones who ever ask questions about worst-case scenarios for women seeking abortions.

Remember, with each logistical hurdle, with each legal question, the pregnancy continues. The possibility of complications grow, and the pregnancy gets further and further along toward whatever imaginary line people draw in their head to define where “life begins.”

Reproductive justice advocates are the only ones who ever ask questions about worst-case scenarios for women seeking abortions. They are usually the ones who deal with the fallout when these laws inevitably lead to broken lives, too. I don’t believe reproductive justice advocates are, however, the only ones who know that all abortion bans produce complications. That is what such laws are supposed to do.

Want more articles like this? Follow THINK on Instagram to get updates on the week’s most important political analysis 

I believe abortion is a right no matter what the circumstance. Maybe you don’t. I also believe you cannot write an abortion law that completely prevents all those situations in which a pregnancy will inflict such trauma that the demand to force birth will seem monstrous. All abortion bans create instances when an abortion is the only moral choice. There will be more headlines like the one out of Ohio. Different grievous hypotheticals will come true. Some already have.

If you don’t want to read those headlines, if you don’t want to be forced to defend abject cruelty, advocating for exceptions isn’t going to be enough. The only way to keep your own dignity and your own conscience clear is to acknowledge that no one, whatever age and however kind of pregnancy, should ever be forced to give birth.