Even a child rape is political in abortion rights debate

WASHINGTON—Over all of the heavyweight newsmakers, the horrifying story of what happened to one 10-year-old girl in the U.S. this week might stand out as most revealing about the current political dynamic here.

I mean, there was a lot of big-picture American political news — President Joe Biden went to the Middle East, former president Donald Trump essentially said he’s decided to run again and is just waiting for the right time to make it official, Biden’s once-trumpeted climate policy bill appeared disemboweled as a victim to Sen. Joe Manchin doing his Lucy-pulls-the-football-away routine yet again, the House committee investigating Jan. 6 further showed Trump’s own senior staff considered him a dangerous lunatic. And so on: inflation reached a 40-year high, the midterm election campaign continued and — oh, that old story — COVID-19 hospitalizations climbed, threatening a nursing shortage. Big stuff.

But a lot of attention got paid to the sad and enraging plight of one young girl in Ohio. I warn you, the details are disturbing: 10 years old. Raped. Pregnant as a result of that assault. And, thanks to a newly implemented, Supreme Court-enabled ban on abortions, unable to terminate the pregnancy in Ohio.

It is the stuff of nightmares, of horror novels. And it is the stuff of real life for this American child.

It is, notably, exactly the kind of situation abortion rights advocates had warned would arise, and insisted on grilling abortion-ban advocates for their opinions on, only to be waved away as scaremongers by those who want to be seen as fiercely “pro life” without discussing the touchy subject of what kind of life they are dooming some vulnerable people to live.

When the story emerged of this child having had to travel to neighbouring Indiana to have an abortion performed — Biden mentioned it in a speech, asking people to “imagine being that little girl” — right-wing political figures and commentators immediately cried “fake news,” as is their custom with any inconvenient truth. They suggested the girl did not exist. They accused those appalled by the turn her life had taken as liars.

“Another lie. Anyone surprised?” Rep. Jim Jordan tweeted.

“One problem: There’s no evidence the girl exists,” wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial board. “What we seem to have here is a presidential seal of approval on an unlikely story from a biased source that neatly fits the progressive narrative but can’t be confirmed.”

The most-watched cable news host in America, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, said flatly the story “was not true” and that Biden and others were “lying about this.”

And then, when Ohio police announced they had arrested a confessed rapist in that very case, the same voices who’d denied the girl existed suddenly changed their tune. Jordan deleted his tweet and called for the perpetrator to be prosecuted; the Journal published a defensive editorial correcting the record. But now, right-wing commentators turned to justifying the law that limited the girl’s options and to demanding prosecution of the doctor in Indiana who had performed the procedure.

James Bopp, a lawyer who has written model legislation for states to ban abortion, told Politico that laws prohibiting abortion should be designed to force child rape victims to give birth to their rapists’ babies. “She would have had the baby, and as many women who have had babies as a result of rape, we would hope that she would understand the reason and ultimately the benefit of having the child.”

Cheered on by Fox News, Indiana’s attorney general announced he was going to investigate and potentially prosecute the doctor who performed the procedure for failing to report it. (It later emerged the doctor had reported the procedure.)

In Washington, Democrats in the Senate brought forward a bill to protect the right to travel across state lines for an abortion, and a Republican senator blocked it.

So there it is, a familiar cycle: when the consequences of a policy are foretold, the U.S. right waves away the warnings and accuses the other side of scaremongering; when the warned-of consequences happen, they initially dismiss the story as fake; when it becomes clear it is true, they then say it was always the plan that this was going to happen, and that it is good — and then proceed to villainize and persecute anyone who tried to stop it from happening. Then they oppose any attempt to change the policy to prevent the same from happening in the future.

It is by now a cycle familiar from any number of other stories from the past few years — including the consequences of Republicans stacking the Supreme Court with right-wing culture warriors and of Trump trying to overturn the election, alongside any number of other instances.

Those other instances are no less consequential — the material of court decisions and legislation and democratic integrity dramatically affects many millions of lives. But in those cases, where the drama plays out in marble hallways in Washington or otherwise on the big national stage, there’s often a level of abstraction that obscures the trees amid the forest — exactly how a “change to the legal landscape” or “threat to democracy” or “big economic bill” will alter the course of individual lives is not always vividly clear.

But here we have the true story of a 10-year-old girl. A victim of rape, and then a victim again of her state’s and country’s politics. Encountering it, you cannot escape seeing the horrific human costs of legal and political decision-making. That even such a heart-rending example didn’t lead to any change in the politics-as-usual shape of the resulting debate tells you something important about the state of the country.

It tells you that this little girl’s story — her horrific tragedy — is what politics as usual in the U.S. is starting to look like.

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