The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A one-source story about a 10-year-old and an abortion goes viral

President Biden delivers remarks on protecting access to abortion health care services on July 8, in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“This isn’t some imagined horror. It is already happening. Just last week, it was reported that a 10-year-old girl was a rape victim — 10 years old — and she was forced to have to travel out of state to Indiana to seek to terminate the pregnancy and maybe save her life.”

— President Biden, remarks during signing of executive order on abortion access, July 8

Update: An arrest has been made in this case, providing additional confirmation. More details below.

This is the account of a one-source story that quickly went viral around the world — and into the talking points of the president.

The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which had guaranteed a right to abortion, has led a number of states to quickly impose new laws to restrict or limit abortions. Ohio was one of the first, imposing a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape and incest.

On July 1, the Indianapolis Star, also known as the IndyStar, published an article, written by the newspaper’s medical writer, about how women seeking abortions had begun traveling from Ohio to Indiana, where less restrictive abortion laws were still in place. “Patients head to Indiana for abortion services as other states restrict care,” the article was headlined.

That was a benign headline. But it was the anecdotal beginning that caught the attention of other news organizations. The article said that three days after the June 24 court ruling, an Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist, Caitlin Bernard, who performs abortions, received a call from “a child abuse doctor” in Ohio who had a 10-year-old patient who was six weeks and three days pregnant. Unable to obtain an abortion in Ohio, “the girl soon was on her way to Indiana to Bernard’s care,” the Star reported.

The only source cited for the anecdote was Bernard. She’s on the record, but there is no indication that the newspaper made other attempts to confirm her account. The story’s lead reporter, Shari Rudavsky, did not respond to a query asking whether additional sourcing was obtained. A Gannett spokeswoman provided a comment from Bro Krift, the newspaper’s executive editor: “The facts and sourcing about people crossing state lines into Indiana, including the 10-year-old girl, for abortions are clear. We have no additional comment at this time.”

The story quickly caught fire, becoming a headline in newspapers around the world. News organizations increasingly “aggregate” — or repackage — reporting from elsewhere if it appears of interest to readers. So Bernard remained the only source — and other news organizations did not follow up to confirm her account.

A sampling:

  • The Daily Mail, July 1: “Child abuse victim, 10, who was six weeks pregnant is forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana for an abortion after home state outlaws it under Roe v Wade ruling.”
  • The Guardian, July 3: “10-year-old rape victim forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana for abortion.”
  • The Jerusalem Post, July 3: “10-year-old rape victim denied abortion in Ohio”
  • Bangladesh Weekly, July 3: “US: 10-year-old Ohio girl denied abortion after abortion ruling”

On CNN’s Sunday interview show on July 3, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem was pressed about the story. Noem, a Republican who opposes abortion rights, said the story was “tragic” and the focus should be on the rapist. “As much as we can talk about what we can do for that little girl, I think we also need to be addressing those sick individuals that do this to our children,” she said.

Under Ohio law, a physician, as a mandated reporter under Ohio Revised Code 2151.421, would be required to report any case of known or suspected physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect of a child to their local child welfare or law enforcement agency. So Bernard’s colleague would have had to make such a report to law enforcement at the same time he or she contacted Bernard. Presumably then a criminal case would have been opened.

Bernard declined to identify to the Fact Checker her colleague or the city where the child was located. “Thank you for reaching out. I’m sorry, but I don’t have any information to share,” she said in an email.

Dan Tierney, press secretary for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), said the governor’s office was unaware of any specific case but he said under the state’s decentralized system, records would be held at a local level. Thus, he said, it would be hard to confirm a report without knowing the local jurisdiction to narrow the search. He added: “The rape of a ten-year-old certainly would be newsworthy.”

As a spot check, we contacted child services agencies in some of Ohio’s most populous cities, including Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo. None of the officials we reached were aware of such a case in their areas.

DeWine, asked Wednesday about the report, called it a tragedy and said the doctor in question presumably reported it to law enforcement. “We have out there, obviously, a rapist,” he told reporters. “We have someone who is dangerous and we have someone who should be picked up and locked up forever.”

An abortion of a 10-year-old is pretty rare. The Columbus Dispatch reported that in 2020, 52 people under the age of 15 received an abortion in Ohio.

The Bottom Line

This is a very difficult story to check. Bernard is on the record, but obtaining documents or other confirmation is all but impossible without details that would identify the locality where the rape occurred.

With news reports around the globe and now a presidential imprimatur, however, the story has acquired the status of a “fact” no matter its provenance. If a rapist is ever charged, the fact finally would have more solid grounding.

Update, July 13: The Columbus Dispatch reported that a 27-year-old Columbus man had been charged with impregnating a 10-year-old Ohio girl who had traveled to Indianapolis for an abortion on June 30. Gershon Fuentes was arrested July 13 “after police say he confessed to raping the child on at least two occasions,” the newspaper reported “He’s since been charged with rape, a felony of the first degree in Ohio.”

A police detective testified that “Columbus police were made aware of the girl’s pregnancy through a referral by Franklin County Children Services that was made by her mother on June 22,” the Dispatch said. While reporting this story, the Fact Checker had contacted the Franklin County agency to ask if such a referral had been made. A Franklin County spokeswoman said the children services agency was prohibited from sharing information regarding specific cases.

The detective also testified that “DNA from the clinic in Indianapolis is being tested against samples from Fuentes, as well as the child’s siblings, to confirm his paternity.”

This is an interesting example of the limitations that journalists face in corroborating this type of story without evidence confirmed by law enforcement. Should Bernard have disclosed the case before the police charged a suspect? Should the IndyStar have published her account without a second source? Should other news organizations have repeated the story without doing their own reporting? Those are questions beyond the purview of the Fact Checker, but worthwhile for readers and media pundits to consider.

[Correction, August 8: A previous version of this update said that Franklin County officials did not respond to a query about whether a referral had been made. In fact, an email the county spokeswoman sent was inadvertently missed during the reporting. This piece has been updated with her response that the agency was prohibited from sharing information regarding specific cases.]

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