Before the Dobbs decision overturned Americans’ right to abortion, I reported out the story of Shirley Wheeler for Slate’s Slow Burn podcast. Shirley is thought to be the first woman in the U.S. convicted of manslaughter for having an abortion. Her story fascinated me because of that assumed, awful “first”—it was extremely rare for women to be prosecuted for getting abortions before Roe, even though the procedure was criminalized in many states (and was illegal in Florida, where Shirley lived). As I dug more into her story, I was won over by her bravery, too—her refusal to tell the police who had performed her abortion, despite being thrown in jail. And I was shocked to learn about the punishment she faced after getting convicted: A male judge, sentencing her to two years’ probation, required her either to marry her boyfriend or leave the state.
All of that drew me to Shirley Wheeler’s story. But as I’ve thought about this set of facts in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision—and in the wake of this month’s viral story about a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio who crossed state lines to get an abortion—what strikes me isn’t the unusualness of Shirley’s ordeal. It’s how normal it was, in so many ways.
Shirley wasn’t an activist. The first abortion rights rally that she spoke at was the first one she had ever attended, and she quickly backed away from public life after her brief burst of notoriety. She was a working-class woman trying to live her life, and the reality of that life was that she had health problems. Those issues had been exacerbated after she carried one pregnancy to term. When she became pregnant again, she got an abortion because she felt she had to, for her own well-being. It was only when the judge handed down his absurd sentence that her story became a media sensation, and her name became a rallying cry for abortion rights. And it was only then that Shirley accepted the role that she had been thrust into. “I don’t claim to know everything about legalizing abortion,” she said at one rally. “But I am proof of what will happen to you if you have an illegal one.”
Making abortion illegal does not make it go away. No matter what the laws are, women will get pregnant and seek to terminate those pregnancies. That is the reality of women’s bodies. In recent weeks, we’ve learned an additional reality: In our post-Dobbs world, like in the pre-Roe one, women’s intimate experiences will become incredibly public. And it’s not just women who will experience this. It will happen to very young girls.
On July 1, the Indy Star published a story about how Ohio’s new abortion restrictions—the cut-off is now six weeks of pregnancy—had pushed patients to seek care in Indiana. The story started this way:
On Monday three days after the Supreme Court issued its groundbreaking decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist, took a call from a colleague, a child abuse doctor in Ohio.
Hours after the Supreme Court action, the Buckeye state had outlawed any abortion after six weeks. Now this doctor had a 10-year-old patient in the office who was six weeks and three days pregnant.
Could Bernard help?
Bernard did help; she performed the abortion. And the story she told as an example of what she was seeing in this new landscape spread everywhere, instantly. It was picked up by abortion rights advocates and journalists, and was eventually cited by President Joe Biden as the horrifying but inevitable consequence of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.
And then, just as quickly, doubt began to spread. The Washington Post’s fact-checker column concluded that, despite the doctor’s first-person account about a patient she’d personally treated, “this is a very difficult story to check.” The Wall Street Journal published an editorial headlined “An Abortion Story Too Good to Confirm.” That piece chided Biden for sharing “an unlikely story from a biased source that neatly fits the progressive narrative” and concluded that there was “no evidence the girl exists.” Ohio’s attorney general told Fox News that he hadn’t heard a “whisper, anywhere” about the case, and said that “every day that goes by the more likely that this is a fabrication.”
It was not a fabrication. The Columbus Dispatch reported on Wednesday that a 27-year-old man had been charged in connection to the case, and that he’d confessed to raping the girl at least twice.
Stories affect us in ways that statistics don’t. A 10-year-old who needs an abortion, a 22-year-old who is told by the state to get married or go home—those are the narratives that flesh out the reality of life under restrictive abortion laws. Just as Shirley Wheeler’s story was both shocking and commonplace, so is the case of this anonymous 10-year-old. As the Columbus Dispatch reported in its story about her rapist’s arrest, “An analysis of Columbus police reports filed since May 9 found 50 reports of rape or sexual abuse involving girls 15 years or younger.” The reporters noted that that was likely an undercount, and that more than 50 abortions are performed on children under 15 annually in Ohio alone.
What this 10-year-old went through is a national shame and a personal tragedy. And all of that was before she became a viral news story and a political football. Who could possibly blame her, or her family, for wanting to maintain her privacy? She lives in a state where the attorney general ran to cable news to deny her existence, and where no one can agree if the procedure she desperately needed would have been legal. And she lives in a country where strangers are now weighing in to say that she should have carried the pregnancy to term, or determining that her abortion was not a “real” one.
Shirley Wheeler lost the choice to keep her decision private when she was charged with manslaughter. Women who were fighting for abortion rights in the early 1970s told me how grateful they were that Shirley proved willing to tell her story—back then, the women who suffered the most from abortions’ illegality died from the procedure, so they could not become the messengers. Shirley understood that millions were at risk, whether that be of pain, of harm, of shame, or of legal consequences. “We must fight together to repeal these laws because I would hate to see another one of my sisters go through the living hell that I have,” she told a crowd in Washington D.C. in 1971.
With Roe gone, many more people will face versions of the living hell Shirley lived through. My colleague Dahlia Lithwick has summed up the ramifications of the Dobbs decision this way: “Women and pregnant people will lose, more than anything else, the ‘right to be left alone.’” For decades, women have stood up to explain what their bodies demand they live through—a culture of telling stories in the hope that others will listen. That is what’s being demanded of us once again, even as sharing those stories never works the way it should. In a country where men rape girls and women, and girls and women get pregnant, and girls and women get abortions, a report about one girl getting raped and getting pregnant and getting an abortion was deemed “preposterous.” But after Dobbs, there will be countless stories just like it. The question is whether they will matter—or if they will even be believed.