Editor’s Note: Mary Ziegler is the author of “Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present” and “Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
In 2016, the Indianapolis Star broke the news that Larry Nassar, the team doctor of the US women’s national gymnastics team, had used his position to perpetuate sexually abuse – as it later turned out, of hundreds of girls and young women.
Six years later, the same paper reported the story of a 10-year old Ohio girl who had been sexually assaulted. The child was six weeks and three days pregnant – three days past the cutoff in her state for legal abortion. The story went viral, with President Joe Biden asking Americans to “imagine being that little girl.”
And yet the response to the story, for many, was scorn and disbelief. Republican US Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio blasted the story as “another lie.” Ohio attorney general Dave Yost joined Fox News anchors in suggesting that the story had been made up. The Wall Street Journal described the report as “too good to be true.” Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, labeled the story “#FakeNews from the liberal media.”
Almost before the critics had a chance to weigh in, the Columbus Dispatch confirmed that a 27-year-old man had been arrested in the case and, according to police, confessed to sexually assaulting the child at least twice. Media outlets that had cast doubt on the girl’s story tried to course-correct. Jordan deleted his tweet. Yost – who had previously said “there is not one damn scintilla of evidence” and that the Star should be ashamed of running the story – released a statement that read in part, “My heart aches for the pain suffered by this young child.”
As appalling as the violence perpetrated against her was, it was also shocking to witness the reflexive doubt many had about her story. More than half a decade since the Indy Star exposed Nassar, has anything changed?
The horrific story of one little girl in America is not just a reminder that we still struggle to believe women and girls. It’s a cautionary tale about how quick we are to demonize some girls and women. If we have worked to trust and support victims of sexual violence, many of us have too often left people seeking abortion out of the equation.
The history of disbelieving abortion seekers goes back at least to the 1960s. At the time, some non-Catholic hospitals had set up therapeutic abortion committees. These committees were designed to limit abortions and protect doctors from lawsuits and criminal charges. But in some parts of the country, a growing number of committee-approved abortions occurred when patients were suicidal.
These abortions qualified even under stringent “life of the mother exceptions,” but abortion opponents were furious. Anti-abortion scholars contended that abortion never improved anyone’s mental health and created “a degree of emotional trauma far exceeding that which would have been sustained by continuation of the pregnancy.” Abortions for reasons of mental health, they argued, were abortions on demand. Women just lied about their mental health to get what they wanted.
By the late 1960s, states were considering modest reforms to their criminal abortion laws, including exceptions for rape and health. The leading model, proposed by the American Law Institute – an elite group of lawyers, professors and judges – had support from Republicans as well as Democrats, but an emerging anti-abortion movement was quick to reject it.
The reason: They claimed that there were few, if any, abortions needed in cases of rape or health threats, and so any woman who invoked such an exception had to be lying. In practice, anti-abortion leaders would never support compromise laws that contradicted the principle that a fetus was a rights-holding person, and if infanticide would not be allowed in cases of rape, abortion foes opposed a rape exception from the moment of fertilization.
But a deep distrust of women also ran through opposition to rape exceptions. “Real” rape, wrote leading anti-abortion lawyer Eugene Quay, almost never resulted in pregnancy. In his view, then, sexual assault victims seeking abortions, were almost certainly lying. “It is well known that many an errant female if caught will call herself a rape victim,” he complained in a 1960 law review article.
We can see the same story when it comes to other abortion exceptions. For years, anti-abortion groups have opposed health exceptions to laws restricting or banning abortion, which they believed would be interpreted broadly enough to allow abortion for any reason at all. They pointed to Doe v. Bolton, a case decided the same day as Roe, which overturned Georgia’s abortion law. They believed that Doe included a mental health exception, and that mental health was an excuse for women who did not tell the truth.
Rape exceptions once seemed to be different. For decades, leading Republicans claimed that they disfavored criminalizing abortion in cases of rape or incest. Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump came out in favor of a rape and incest exception. But when the debate centered on low-income people, and especially people of color, distrust of women and other pregnant people always shone through, even then.
This was clear in battles about the Hyde Amendment, a ban on Medicaid reimbursement for abortion. The amendment was part of an appropriations bill, which meant that each year brought a new battle about whether it should have any exceptions. Anti-abortion leaders and their Republican allies in Congress always opposed exceptions for rape and incest. The reason: People seeking abortions could not be trusted. Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who authored the amendment, contended that no one held women accountable if they claimed to be rape; people simply believed them.
Today, the distrust that women, particularly women of color, have long faced is now on full display for anyone who can get pregnant. That’s because anti-abortion groups no longer feel compelled to hide what they think. Part of the reason is that abortion opponents are no longer worried about the Supreme Court.
At one time, pragmatists in the movement worried that taking unpopular position could alienate some Supreme Court justices, who might worry about backlash, and undermine the quest to undo a right to choose. But after Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, many – including right-wing lawmakers – assumed that five justices would overrule Roe. The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett further sealed their conclusion.
Now, we know those predictions are correct. Besides, anti-abortion leaders are no longer worried about offending leaders of the national Republican Party, which has moved much further to the right on abortion since Trump’s rise to power in 2016. Now, there is little daylight between the Republican Party and the anti-abortion movement, not least when it comes to the question of rape exceptions.
Rape exceptions remained popular – a recent poll by Pew Research Center found that 69% of Americans favored rape exceptions; only 8% opposed all abortion access in all cases. But the dynamic in conservative legislatures has made popular opinion infinitely less important. More conservative states and House races have become politically uncompetitive with gerrymandering and redistricting. Primary races have become de facto general elections. More Republican leaders fear primary challenges – and angry donors – far more than voters. As a result, lawmakers are more likely to cater to the demands of the anti-abortion movement more than to the median voter – and anti-abortion leaders are voicing their true beliefs rather than seeking to expand their support.
It may be shocking to see anti-abortion leaders calling on 10-year-olds to carry pregnancies to term, and it’s hard to believe that so many still assume that any survivor of sexual assault seeking an abortion has something to hide. But, in truth, the distrust of women seeking abortions is nothing new. What has changed is people’s willingness to discuss it openly.
#MeToo has raised questions about due process, but it’s also exposed equally important issues about whether we believe only some women, and only under certain circumstances. All women who are brave enough to come forward after sexual assault deserve the benefit of the doubt. If “believe women” is a rule, it should not have an abortion exception.