Unimaginable abortion stories will become more common. Is American journalism ready?

As more states restrict or ban abortion, more women and girls who are raped will face a choice between crossing state lines for care or delivering babies when they are still in elementary school. I too wish that this were untrue! But events this week show that even if you don’t want to believe it — even if it seems so impossible that it must receive a heartily skeptical published fact-check — it is going to happen. And reporters who want to tell these stories may need to set aside some of what they learned in journalism school.

Last week, weeks after the Supreme Court voted to strike down Roe v. Wade, President Joe Biden signed an executive order in an attempt to protect abortion access. In remarks at the time, Biden said, “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.” The story he was citing was published by the Indianapolis Star on July 1.

From that story:

On Monday three days after the Supreme Court issued its groundbreaking decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist, took a call from a colleague, a child abuse doctor in Ohio.

Hours after the Supreme Court action, the Buckeye state had outlawed any abortion after six weeks. Now this doctor had a 10-year-old patient in the office who was six weeks and three days pregnant.

Could Bernard help?

The two-byline story — written by Shari Rudavsky and Rachel Fradette — made headlines around the world. But the first impulse of mainly right-leaning news organizations — despite the fact that the doctor who performed the abortion was on the record saying this happened — was to try to debunk it. Why? I mean, probably because it’s horrible and we don’t want to believe a 10-year-old could get raped and pregnant, because 10-year-olds are babies themselves. (By the way, Covid appears to have increased early-onset puberty around the world. Getting your period “early” now means you get it when you’re younger than 8.)

In a column entitled “A one-source story about a 10-year-old and an abortion goes viral,” The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote:

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.”

Kessler notes that Bernard “declined to identify to the Fact Checker her colleague or the city where the child was located” and that after “a spot check,” he was unable to find evidence that the child’s rape had been reported in Ohio. He wrote:

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.

Kessler doesn’t go into why a doctor who performs abortions might have professional, non-nefarious reasons for declining to share the names of her colleagues — presumably a staffer or volunteer at the clinic where she works — or why she might be loath to (slash legally prohibited from because of privacy laws) providing details like the name and address of her patient who was raped to a national newspaper.

“An abortion by a 10-year-old is pretty rare,” Kessler notes. (Oh, that “by.”) “The Columbus Dispatch reported that in 2020, 52 people under the age of 15 received an abortion in Ohio.” But if 52 under-15-year-olds got abortions in Ohio in 2020, that’s one a week, not that rare — and that’s just abortions that were reported, during a pandemic when a lot of abortion clinics were closed.

The Post column opened the floodgates to worse takes. “Every day that goes by, the more likely that this is a fabrication. I know the cops and prosecutors in this state. There’s not one of them that wouldn’t be turning over every rock, looking for this guy and they would have charged him,” Ohio attorney general Dave Yost told USA Today’s Ohio Network bureau on Tuesday. Picking up on the “single source” rhetoric highlighted in the Post, Yost added, “Shame on the Indianapolis paper that ran this thing on a single source who has an obvious axe to grind.”

On Wednesday morning, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board called it “An abortion story too good to confirm,” as if there was something particularly juicy and delicious about this one (hint: It’s her age!)

Mid-day on Wednesday, the Indianapolis Star published its follow-up. An Ohio man has been charged in the rape of the girl. In the story, which has four bylines, reporters Tony Cook, Bethany Bruner, Monroe Trombly, and Dayeon Eom note 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,” that “the timeline given by police coincides with the account Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an Indianapolis physician who provides abortion services, shared,” and that the girl “had recently turned 10, meaning she was likely impregnated at 9 years old.”

“This story is an interesting example of how news can be widely shared these days,” Kessler told me via email. “It was picked up by outlets around the world and it was based on one source — someone who was an activist in one side of the debate — without an apparent effort to confirm it. This fact check added more context and was updated once there was a new development.”

I was the ONLY reporter in the courtroom this morning as the man accused of raping a 10-year-old girl, impregnating her, leading to an abortion in Indiana, was arraigned.

This confirms that the case exists.https://t.co/eWvtBMxqZW

— Bethany Bruner (@bethany_bruner) July 13, 2022

“While reporting this story, the Fact Checker had contacted the Franklin County agency to ask if such a referral had been made. Unlike similar Ohio county agencies we contacted, Franklin County officials did not offer a response,” Kessler noted in a Wednesday update to his piece.

Kessler didn’t originally note in his column that some of the agencies he’d contacted hadn’t responded. Sometimes reporters or their editors make editorial decisions to leave certain details out of stories. In a fact-checking column, that might be because the additional information feels extraneous or bogs down the column’s narrative.

In, say, a story about a child who must travel out of state to receive an abortion because abortion is illegal after six weeks in the state where she lives, there are other reasons to leave certain details out.

In America after the end of Roe v. Wade, one brave source on the record in the final story will often be the best we can get. Obviously, reporters and editors must make sure that their reporting is accurate and true! But those who believe that the end of legal abortion in many states is newsworthy will need to figure out how to report and publish these stories with a few more constraints than they’d prefer. If performing or receiving an abortion now counts as activism, well, then journalists will need to be okay quoting “activists,” unless they only want to tell the anti-abortion movement’s side.

Countless abortion stories will never be told at all. It won’t be because they’re lies. It will be because telling them is too risky, because patients and doctors and staffers and volunteers will face arrest for coming forward.

The facts will live on in the shadows. The women and children’s real lives will continue. Even if their stories seems “too good” to be true. Even if you wish they weren’t.

A bouquet of roses are left by the front gate to the Jackson Women’s Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss., Friday, July 8, 2022. The clinic was the only facility that performed abortions in the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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