On July 1, the Indianapolis Star published a story about out-of-state abortion patients coming to Indiana for care. Opening the piece was a grim anecdote about a 10-year-old rape survivor who, at six weeks and three days pregnant, was just over the limit to get a legal abortion in her home state of Ohio. Unsurprisingly, the image of a pregnant elementary-school student denied access to abortion proved a powerful one: Just a week later, President Biden cited the child while announcing his executive order on abortion access.
All hell promptly broke loose.
Multiple news outlets — including the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Fox News — ran pieces implying that Biden was repeating something that wasn’t true. A “one-source story” that was “too good to confirm” and “still not verified by fact-checkers.” (It should go without saying, at least for anyone with an ounce of decency, that the line of inquiry these stories are posing is a grotesque one that misunderstands both doctor-patient confidentiality and the realities of what it means to be 10 years old and pregnant.) Then a Columbus man was arrested after confessing to the rape. Pieces were updated, corrections were issued, and we were all left to wonder what exactly we were to take from this ugly episode. To many, it was an illustration of the callous cruelty of the anti-abortion camp, who could not respond to even the story of a child rape survivor with compassion. But it’s left me wrestling with a much bigger question: What are we putting survivors through when we ask them to be the “acceptable” face of abortion, when we politicize their most painful traumas to advocate for basic health-care access?
Abortion-access campaigns frequently rally around the most horrifying outcomes of abortion bans: the people who die when denied medically necessary abortions, like Poland’s Agnieszka T, or the ones who land in prison for miscarriages and self-managed abortions, like Indiana’s Purvi Patel and Oklahoma’s Brittney Poolaw. And then there are the rape survivors like the unnamed 10-year-old from Ohio.
It’s understandable why so many of us latch on to these stories: The deaths, the prison sentences, the children forced to carry a pregnancy to term all vividly demonstrate the ultimate end point of a world where reproductive autonomy is conditional. And yet when we make these stories the centerpieces of our abortion rhetoric, we are asking the most vulnerable, the most traumatized among us, to shoulder an even greater burden by becoming the public face of abortion rights.
Being raped is a dehumanizing violation, one that robs you of the basic ability to determine what happens with your own body. Becoming pregnant after a rape compounds the injury, once again hijacking your body for purposes that are not your own. And though we don’t always think of it in these terms, becoming a public figure for a topic as contentious as rape or abortion (or, in this case, both at the same time) can replicate that effect. Once you enter the public eye, whether willingly or because you’ve been thrust into the spotlight, your story ceases to be your own. It becomes a form of public property, a story to be dissected by journalists, used as a political talking point, endlessly debated by commentators who have never met you and do not know your pain. The real-life people who endure these horrific tragedies are replaced by two-dimensional caricatures to be analyzed like characters out of a novel — even by people who are ostensibly on their side. For some survivors, the stress of being a public figure can be far worse than their original violation, an unending episode of retraumatization in which they’re forced to replay their worst moments again and again for the benefit of movements that aren’t always prepared to provide care and support for them. More painful still, their personal health care becomes a debate for the right to weigh in on, distorting a child’s pain into a lecture about “valuing life.”
It’s also worth noting that, even as many see rape and incest exemptions as some kind of balm that soothes the cruelty of an abortion ban, these “exemptions” provide little beyond a façade of compassion. As this week has made clear, few rape survivors are ever deemed truly worthy of an abortion. Even a child — who by legal definition can only be raped — is not a perfect enough victim for the anti-abortion camp. What hope does any other survivor actually have?
The 10-year-old girl from Ohio is still anonymous (for now, anyway). (Her abortion provider, however, has since been named publicly, and Indiana’s attorney general has threatened to investigate her.) The fact that she has yet to be publicly branded as a rape survivor who got an abortion does not lessen the trauma she’s likely experiencing as her tale gets bandied about in the news. What does it say about a political movement that expects a literal child to carry that much weight? Why do we consistently expect the most vulnerable members of society to not merely endure the most grotesque violations but to publicly broadcast their traumas for the good of the rest of us?
What might it look like if abortion-rights advocacy didn’t hinge on the personal traumas of those most harmed by abortion restrictions — if, instead of highlighting the deaths, the imprisonments, the pregnant children, we simply started from the position that abortion is, at a fundamental level, both health care and a social good? What if, instead of evoking the trauma of a nameless 10-year-old, Biden had offered a platform to people who are proud to talk about how easy access to abortion enabled them to plan their lives, and their families, on their own terms?
Arguing for broad access to abortion simply because people who want abortions deserve them might not generate scandalous eye-popping headlines. But it full-throatedly argues for a world where abortion is not a rare emergency service provided to only the most desperate and needy of pregnant people but a basic form of health care that provides everyone with full access to bodily autonomy. Promoting that framework for abortion would certainly offer a boon to the most vulnerable abortion seekers — the children, the rape survivors, the people whose lives are at risk — by allowing them to simply access abortion without having to jump through any hoops. And it would also offer them the priceless gift of being able to decide when, and how, to share the story of their trauma on their own terms and not on anyone else’s.
More On Life After Roe
- She Beat Abortion Foes in Kansas. Then She Did It Again in Kentucky.
- The Pilots Flying Abortion Patients Across State Lines
- It Was a Good Night for Abortion Rights