Publisher’s note: Mary Ziegler is the author of “Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present” Y “Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment“. The opinions expressed in this comment belong solely to its author. Read more opinions in cnne.com/opinion.
(CNN) — In 2016, the Indianapolis Star broke the news that Larry Nassar, the doctor for the US women’s national gymnastics team, had used his position to perpetuate sexual abuse—as it later emerged— of hundreds of girls and young women.
Six years later, the same newspaper reported the story of a 10-year-old girl from Ohio that she had been sexually assaulted. The girl was six weeks and three days pregnant, three days past her state’s limit for legal abortion. The story went viral and President Joe Biden asked Americans to “imagine being that girl”.
And yet, the response to history, for many, was contempt and disbelief. Republican US Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio criticized the story as “another lie”. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost joined Fox News anchors in suggesting the story had been fabricated. The Wall Street Journal he described the report as “too good to be true.” Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, called the story “#FakeNews from the liberal media”.
Almost before 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 girl at least twice. The media that had questioned the story of the girl tried to correct the course. Jordan deleted his tweet. Yost, who had previously said “there’s not a damn spark of evidence” and that Star should be ashamed of publishing the story, issued a statement that said in part: “My heart aches for the pain suffered by this girl.”
As horrific as the violence perpetrated against her was, it was also shocking to witness the thoughtful 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 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 left people who seek abortion too often out of the equation.
The history of unbelieving abortion seekers dates back to at least the 1960s. By this time, some non-Catholic hospitals had established 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 strict “mother’s life exceptions“, but opponents of abortion were furious. Anti-abortion scholars argued that abortion never improved anyone’s mental health and created “a degree of emotional trauma that far exceeds that which a continuation of the pregnancy would have suffered.” mental health, they argued, were abortions on demand, with women simply lying about their mental health to get what they wanted.
In the late 1960s, states were considering modest reforms to their criminal abortion laws, including exceptions for rape and health. The main model, proposed by the American Law Institute, an elite group of lawyers, professors and judges, had support from both Republicans and Democratsbut an emerging anti-abortion movement quickly rejected it.
The reason: they affirmed that there were few abortions, if any, for cases of rape or threats to health, 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 is a person with rights, and if infanticide was not allowed in cases of rape, the enemies of abortion opposed a rape exception from the time of fertilization.
But a deep mistrust of women also manifested itself in opposition to rape exceptions. “Real” rape, noted anti-abortion advocate Eugene Quay wrote, almost never resulted in pregnancy. In his view, then, sexual assault victims seeking abortions were almost certainly lying. “It is well known that many wandering women, if caught, will call themselves rape victims,” se complained in an article law review of 1960.
We can see the same story when it comes to other exceptions to abortion. For years, anti-abortion groups have opposed health exceptions to laws restricting or prohibiting abortion, which they believed would be interpreted broadly enough to allow abortion for any reason. pointed out Doe vs. Bolton, a case decided the same day as Roe, which struck down Georgia’s abortion law. They believed that Doe included a mental health exception and that mental health was an excuse for women who were not telling the truth.
The violation exceptions once appeared to be different. For decades, mainstream Republicans have claimed they were not in favor of criminalizing abortion in cases of rape or incest. Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump have spoken out in favor of a rape and incest exception. But when the debate turned to low-income people, and especially people of color, the mistrust of women and other pregnant people was always clear, even then.
This became clear in the battles over 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 over whether there should be exceptions. Anti-abortion leaders and their Republican allies in Congress have long opposed rape and incest exceptions. The reason: people seeking abortions could not be trusted. Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who authored the amendment, asserted that no one held women accountable if they claimed to have been raped; people just believed them.
Today, the mistrust that women, particularly women of color, have long faced is on full display for anyone who might become pregnant. That’s because anti-abortion groups no longer feel compelled to hide what they think. Part of the reason is that opponents of abortion are no longer worried about the Supreme Court.
At one point, pragmatists in the movement worried that taking an unpopular position might alienate some Supreme Court justices, who might worry about backlash and undermine the quest to undo the right to choose. But after the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, many, including right-wing lawmakers, assumed that five justices would overrule Roe. Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation further sealed her conclusion.
Now, we know those predictions are correct. In addition, anti-abortion leaders no longer worry about offending leaders of the national Republican Party, which has moved much farther to the right on abortion since Trump’s rise to power in 2016. Now, there is little distance between the GOP Republican and the anti-abortion movement, especially on the issue of rape exceptions.
Rape exceptions remained popular: a recent survey of the Pew Research Center found that 69% of Americans favored rape exceptions; only 8% opposed access to abortion in all cases. But the dynamics of conservative legislatures have made popular opinion infinitely less important.
The more conservative states and House races have become politically uncompetitive with gerrymandering and redistricting. Primary elections have become de facto general elections. More Republican leaders fear primary challenges — and angry donors — far more than voters do. As a result, legislators are more likely to heed the demands of the anti-abortion movement than the median voter, and anti-abortion leaders express their true beliefs instead of seeking to broaden their support.
It can be shocking to see anti-abortion leaders asking 10-year-old girls 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, distrust of women seeking abortions is nothing new. What has changed is the willingness of people to discuss it openly.
#MeToo has raised questions about due process, but it has also exposed equally important questions about whether we believe only some women and only under certain circumstances. All women who are brave enough to report sexual assault deserve the benefit of the doubt. If “believing women” is a rule, you shouldn’t have an exception to abortion.