What the Ohio rape case tells us about post-Roe abortion politics


No one wanted the story of a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio to be true. How could they? It’s grim and disconcerting in the way that only such crimes can be.

Some people wanted it not to be true for another reason.

The story came to light in an Indianapolis Star report — an Indiana story because the child’s Ohio doctor — concerned that changes in abortion law in that state made aborting the victim’s pregnancy illegal — sought a colleague’s help across state lines. The Star, writing about how the deep-red state suddenly found itself as an unlikely (and temporary) abortion haven, featured the 10-year-old’s story.

For opponents of abortion, the lack of details about the case and the seeming convenience of it were reasons to dismiss it. After all, here was an example of the sort of extreme situation in which most Americans would say abortion needs to be available, just as concerns about the availability of the procedure to address such situations was coming into question. So a number of conservative politicians expressed skepticism about the story — or went further, declaring it fake news.

It was not. But the story highlighted two alarming patterns in the new, post-Roe v. Wade world of abortion politics. The first is a continued effort to downplay the need for legal abortion. The second is that the political utility in expressing opposition to abortion hasn’t evaporated; instead, the utility has simply shifted further to the right.

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The latter was foreseeable in at least one way. With Roe being overturned, states are now free to legally restrict abortion, meaning that Republican legislators in red states like Indiana are moving quickly to figure out how they plan to do so. That’s meant jockeying not for abortion to be made illegal but, instead, over how strict the prohibitions should be. For GOP politicians and activists, the political fight has shifted to the right, meaning that standing out from the pack in appealing to conservatives can necessitate outflanking the opposition by moving closer to the extreme.

Consider the reaction to the Ohio case from Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita (R). He appeared on Fox News on Wednesday evening to discuss the case. Host Jesse Watters was trying to take credit for the arrest of a suspect in the rape case, as though law enforcement in Columbus was waiting for Watters’s efforts to doubt the story (as he had earlier in the week) before moving in. Rokita, a former conservative member of Congress, appears to have shared Watters’s desire to turn the situation into a personal victory.

His office would investigate the situation, he pledged to Watters and Fox viewers, and press charges as needed. Not against the rapist. Against the doctor in Indiana who spoke about the case to the Indianapolis Star.

“We’re gathering the evidence as we speak, and we’re going to fight this to the end, including looking at her licensure,” Rokita said, claiming that the doctor might have violated laws about disclosing abuse.

The victim “was politicized, politicized for the gain of killing more babies, all right?” he added later. “That was the goal. And this abortion activist” — that is, the doctor — “is out there front and center. The lamestream media, the fake news is right behind it.” He declared the Indianapolis Star to be fake news … though their story was accurate.

This response — appearing on the right’s favorite cable-news network to assure viewers that some criminality would be found to punish supporters of abortion — is the sort of thing that supporters of the procedure feared once Roe was overturned. Rokita is politicizing the incident as surely as anyone else, to stake out a position further to the right than his state’s current abortion restrictions. The law says that a child could get an abortion? Well, rest assured that Rokita will try to find some way to impose punishment on those involved, if possible.

In his response to the crime, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) manifested the first pattern mentioned above: He tried to downplay the idea that his state’s laws blocking abortion were too strict.

“Every day that goes by the more likely that this is a fabrication,” he said of the case in a media interview earlier this week. “I’m not saying it could not have happened. What I’m saying to you is there is not a damn scintilla of evidence. And shame on the Indianapolis paper that ran this thing on a single source who has an obvious ax to grind.”

The Columbus Dispatch reported that there were 52 incidents in which children under the age of 15 obtained an abortion in the state in 2020, an average of one each week. Why was it so important for Yost to cast this as wildly unlikely? To get ahead of local police, to whom he presumably could have appealed for information about their investigation? In part, certainly, because it’s politically useful to Yost — up for reelection this year — to demonstrate his loyalty to the Republican base. And that means expressing skepticism that there are regular occurrences in which the sorts of abortion most Americans see as important to protect under the law are actually deployed.

Last month, Public Religion Research Institute asked Americans how they felt about a battery of possible abortion-related laws. Among the restrictions they introduced were one limiting legal abortion only to the life of the mother, one expanding that slightly to include cases of rape and incest and one making it illegal to cross state lines to obtain a legal abortion.

Only about half of Republicans opposed a law in which the only allowed exception would be to save the life of the mother. Only a bit over a third opposed a law tightening access to include only preserving the mother’s life or pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Most Republicans, however, opposed legislation that would make it illegal for women in a state with bans on abortion to seek a legal procedure elsewhere.

This, of course, is what happened in the case of that young girl from Ohio. Her doctor was concerned about the legality of aborting the pregnancy that followed her rape. So she contacted the doctor in Indiana, where there was no question about the legality — at least until the state’s Republican legislature figures out what new boundaries it plans to impose.

After Roe was overturned, some abortion opponents suggested that there was an opportunity for Republicans to demonstrate new commitment to care for mothers and their children. A smattering of national Republican politicians have made noises about legislation that could help do that. But the Ohio incident makes clear that at the state level, where these fights have now shifted, the political jockeying is often not pushing Republicans toward the middle but further to the right.

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