Republicans have built careers on combatting child sex abuse. Abortion bans complicate that history.
How can Republicans square abortion bans without rape exceptions with a history of tough on crime rhetoric about sexual violence?
Since taking office in 2019, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has made human trafficking a central focus of his work. He’s poured millions into victim-support programs, led sting operations and advocated for laws, including Ohio’s Protect Trafficked Minors Act.
But after the Indianapolis Star published the story of a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim who needed to travel to Indiana for an abortion, Yost publicly raised doubts, telling Fox News he had not seen any evidence of the case.
“We have regular contact with local police and prosecutors. Not a whisper anywhere,” he said. “There is no case request for analysis [at the state crime lab] that looks anything like this.”
Two days later, the Columbus Dispatch confirmed the case; the alleged rapist was arrested in Franklin County, where Yost works and resides. The state AG was roundly criticized for rushing to judgment and for rushing to implement a law that prohibits most abortions in Ohio, including for rape victims who are more than six weeks pregnant.
Reed Galen, a political strategist who worked on Republican campaigns and a cofounder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said this case is emblematic of the problems Republicans face post Roe v. Wade.
“The Republicans in particular and people like Yost are sort of like the dogs that caught the car. They worked and worked and worked and worked for this for 40 years and they finally got what they wanted,” he said. “But now there are real-life consequences.”
One of the consequences for Republican politicians is appearing hypocritical on the issue of sexual violence. Conservatives have historically worked across the aisle on child sexual abuse policy, collaborating with their liberal counterparts on federal and state legislation.
“They defined it as beyond politics. This was a politically neutral issue. How could you politicize such a terrible thing?” said Smith College professor Nancy Whittier, author of the book, “The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse,” “There's no cost to appearing to be tough on child sexual abuse.”
According to Whittier, the overturn of Roe v. Wade is unprecedented in recent decades in the way it puts two Republican priorities in conflict: opposition to child sexual abuse and opposition to abortion.
“It's going to be children in their own community who are becoming pregnant, who they never had to see before because those children had quiet abortions.”Nancy Whittier, Smith College sociology professor
Religious conservatives have consistently encouraged people to carry pregnancies that resulted from rape to term, Whittier said. But now that abortion bans without exceptions for rape are becoming law, this political conflict is no longer just theoretical.
“I don't think they have yet reckoned with the fact that it's going to be people, children in their own community who are becoming pregnant, who they never had to see before because those children had quiet abortions,” she said.
Lack of access to abortion care harms recovery efforts for sexual violence survivors, said Celia Williamson, executive director of the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute at the University of Toledo.
“Recovery has everything to do with empowerment. It has everything to do with owning your own choices and owning your own body once again,” she said. “And to have that choice taken away from you adds to the current trauma you experience and potentially the lifelong trauma of not having the option for an abortion.”
Williamson has worked with the attorney general’s office on its human trafficking initiatives and she is not surprised by Yost’s comments about the case.
“I think people can be deeply involved in an issue and have a big blindspot. And that's me being generous” she said.
Yost and his office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. In response to calls for him to apologize, he told News 5 Cleveland that he never apologizes for telling the truth.
“Apologize for what?” he asked News 5 investigator Scott Noll. “Questioning a newspaper story?”
But Yost’s opponents say he went far beyond just questioning a newspaper story. And the man running against him in November, State Representative Jeff Crossman, also believes Yost’s efforts to combat human trafficking have been greatly lacking.
“I question the results. I question whether or not they're actually being effective,” he said. “And I question whether or not they're actually prosecuting victims of human trafficking rather than going after the people actually responsible for it.”
An investigation from WYSO News last year found that a majority of the human trafficking victims identified in Yost’s sting operations were arrested on prostitution charges, over 100 people in 2020 and 2021.
Whittier says high profile cases like the Ohio child rape case could spark a larger political movement to support survivors beyond abortion care.
“There is not a really active political movement at the moment,” she said. “The question for me is, are we going to see advocates speaking up on behalf of the child victims in a new way now. Because those people are coming into the spotlight in a different way because of the abortion bans.”
Ohio’s new abortion restrictions mean the spotlight will likely keep shining on these cases, which are not uncommon. According to the state health department, in 2020 alone, over 500 abortions were performed on minors in Ohio.