One of the purposes of newsrooms making an effort to be more inclusive is precisely for moments like this.
Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post tried to clear things up by doing his thing, but his thing is decidedly not factchecking rape accusations, which was reflected in his coverage in a number of ways. He cast doubt upon the story, claiming there was only one on-the-record source, the treating doctor, whom he described as an “activist.” Kessler called the story something that fed into the President’s “talking points.”
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 President used this story as an example, not a talking point. This is about this young girl’s life. The doctor didn’t make up a story to justify being against Dobbs; it’s the other way around.
There are way too many stories to tell that justify being against Dobbs. That is why medical and human rights experts are against it.
“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,” Kessler finished, prior to the rapist actually being charged.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but the belief that charges follow (to coin another man’s term) “legitimate rapes” is a luxury not borne out by statistics. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out in reply to Kessler’s piece, “80%+ of rapes go unreported to police. Should those be treated as false too?”
Do male reporters really believe that the rape of a child is often reported? First of all, all ten year old pregnant girls have been raped. With or without charges. And second of all, they are most often raped by a family member or close personal family friend or community leader, which means it is even less likely to be reported (that doesn’t seem to be the facts of the Ohio child rape). Child rape is not rare and it is not often reported.
Even if abortion is legal due to rape, Kessler’s problem in “proving” it should go a long way to explaining why a law like that won’t actually work in real life to protect women and girls in most cases.
Yet in some states, they are not even making allowances for rape, incest and life of the mother. For example, DeSantis just signed a 15-week ban on abortion that provides no exception for rape, incest, or human trafficking. Florida lawmakers want it to be even more extreme.
“Definitions of “rare” may vary, but if 52 under-15-year-olds got abortions in Ohio in 2020, that’s once a week — and it’s just abortions that were reported, during a pandemic when a lot of abortion clinics were closed,” Laura Owen wrote in Nieman Lab in response to Kessler’s fact-check, pointing out that our media isn’t ready for these stories.
Abortion is *not rare* for people under the age of 15. It’s not so rare for a 10-year-old.
Owen reached out to Kessler and published his reply, in which he referred to the treating doctor as an “activist”:
“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.”
If a doctor doing her job is an “activist,” who then should we trust with decision of whether or not a rape occurred and requires medical intervention? Perhaps the media of mostly men will take that on, as well. (Priests, journalists and Republican lawmakers will meet Americans in the operating room. Good luck, and good night!)
Kessler implied that “activist” translates to ‘not the best source.’ Someone to be doubted. The Right ran with this message. The ugly headlines were everywhere, serving to even further silence and shame survivors who know they won’t be believed in the first place.
The result of casting doubt on this rape victim’s story? Now they are putting a target on the doctor’s back, trying to charge her with breaking the law even though abortion is still legal in Indiana (not for long). This will have a chilling effect on doctors willing to provide this necessary medical intervention. Getting these stories wrong at such a revered institution as the Washington Post has huge implications.
The United Nations sees forced pregnancy of a 10-year-old girl as a human rights abuse, not a side. They note, “According to the World Health Organisation, child pregnancies are extremely dangerous for the health of the pregnant girl and may lead to complications and death in some cases. The bodies of young girls are not fully developed to carry on with a pregnancy, the experts recalled.”
Who is the activist here?
The actual activists in this scenario are the people who make laws that go against best medical practices and are forcing a public discussion about the necessity for this very personal and private medical procedure. Their religious beliefs made them such fervent activists about this that several of them lied about it to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, and the people passing restrictions in states are activists who do not want to be confronted with the reality of the rape of a 10-year-old.
It is the activist whose take we cannot trust, Kessler determined about the doctor source. But he is wrong about who the activist is. And he is hardly alone in this.
This notion of who is an activist is too deeply impacted by centuries of who has had the power to shape the news to unpack here, but the stark reality is sexual assault and abuse are so common for women and girls that we know it’s not “rare.” The idea that people are activists for abortion is gruesome and misleading. No one wants an abortion. Everyone wants freedom. Abortion is a necessary path to freedom for people who can give birth.
RAINN reports that “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted). About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.”
60,000 children are victims of “substantiated or indicated” sexual abuse every year in this country. That doesn’t include those whose abuse goes unnoticed.
It gets uglier: “A majority of child victims are 12-17. Of victims under the age of 18: 34% of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66% of victims of sexual assault and rape are age 12-17.”
Thirty-four percent of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12. NOT RARE.
The impact of these facts informs women and girls’ experiences, and that does not make us activists; it makes us alive, in the United States of America, where we are no longer free to even be treated for the medical result of an assault. This is so outrageous an assault on basic freedoms that it is incomprehensible to whittle it down to “sides.”
One in 10 women has been raped by an intimate partner. During pregnancy, abuse is often escalated to the point of murder.
Yes, ten years old. Homicide. You read that correctly. Why so hysterical, eh? Ye dirty activists.
Staying pregnant is a target on the back of a woman in an abusive relationship, which is so common that NCADV reports, “On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.”
Pregnancy is far more dangerous than abortion. In an opinion piece for Scientific American, a doctor who treats high risk pregnancies wrote, “The risk any person accepts in continuing a pregnancy to term exceeds that of an early safe abortion by literally an order of magnitude.”
Forced pregnancy puts women’s lives at risk for numerous reasons. Being against death should not render a person unreliable, nor should a doctor be rendered unreliable for being anti-death. That is their purpose. Forced pregnancy as the result of a rape is a second attack on liberty, one that lasts a lifetime.
Is a ten-year-old rape victim a “talking point” for Biden as Kessler suggested? Are rape victims being used by a President to further his ‘agenda’? Yikes. President Biden co-authored the very first Violence Against Women Act in 1994. “This act was a landmark piece of legislation that changed the way our country responded to domestic violence and sexual assault.” It saved lives.
The then Senator’s actions in 1990, when he first introduced this legislation, have shown that he actually knows the statistics regarding the peril of sexual and violent assault on women and girls. His fight against those perils is part of his history; it speaks to his motives. This is not some useful talking point for this President. To suggest such erases his history, it conflates opposition rhetoric with Biden’s actions and oddly suggests we can’t ever know anything. We can. History and knowledge inform us.
Sexual assault is sadly a woman’s purview if you will. We are the experts. The people who know nothing about sexual assault and abortion as healthcare are actually the people whose biases are harmful enough to warrant disclosure. They should not be doing fact-checks on this topic any more than someone who knows nothing about football should be a ref.
None of this is meant to reflect poorly on Kessler’s overall work, which is usually superb. But he and many others are not up to this new challenge. This fumble was costly for women, for this doctor, for this broader discussion, and most of all, for the ten-year-old girl.
Women are not activists; we are experts. The doctors performing abortions are not activists; they are experts on the medical care for a pregnant person.
Ms. Jones is the co-founder/ editor-in-chief of PoliticusUSA and a member of the White House press pool.
Sarah hosts Politicus News and co-hosts Politicus Radio. Her analysis has been featured on several national radio, television news programs and talk shows, and print outlets including Stateside with David Shuster, as well as The Washington Post, The Atlantic Wire, CNN, MSNBC, The Week, The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
Sarah is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.
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