It was among the most puzzling moments of the first Republican presidential debate: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to answer a question about supporting a national abortion ban and instead offered a story about a woman he met who had survived “multiple abortion attempts” and was saved after being “discarded in a pan.” The tale was clearly meant to curry favor with the conservative voters who decide GOP primaries, but was it true?
Dogged reporting over several days by a team of three reporters — democracy team misinformation reporters Ali Swenson and Christine Fernando, and Miami-based national political reporter Adriana Gomez Licon — found that the woman did exist but that her birth story was far more complicated than the version described by DeSantis. While other outlets also pursued DeSantis’ story, the AP team had several significant firsts: They were was the first to interview the woman and get her story first hand; the first to surface newspaper stories from the 1950s that offered a much different version of events; and the first to get historical photos from the time she was born, including one showing her as a baby being discharged from the hospital. These allowed AP to distinguish its coverage of a nationally significant moment in the GOP presidential primary.
After DeSantis told the story during the televised debate, the AP’s news verification team in New York alerted Swenson that it was generating comments online from people thinking it wasn’t true. She quickly found a few old news articles about the woman and two YouTube videos that featured her telling her story for anti-abortion advocacy groups. Swenson then looped in Gomez Licon asking if the story seemed familiar to her based on her years covering DeSantis in Florida and then reached out for additional help from Fernando, who had covered the national abortion debate extensively in her previous job.
It was Fernando who reached the woman, Miriam “Penny” Hopper, and persuaded her to talk to the AP. She also spent several days securing the legal permissions for AP to use the images that ended up running with the story. Gomez Licon meanwhile worked with news researcher Rhonda Shafner and local libraries in central Florida to surface newspaper clippings from 1956 about the medical effort to save the baby. Swenson and Fernando also contacted experts in obstetrics and gynecology who raised doubts about the woman’s birth story, drawing a consensus that it was not an attempted abortion but rather a case that had been treated as a stillbirth. The reporting also raised questions about whether the story, from an era when abortion was widely illegal and babies born extremely early in gestation were not expected to survive, was even relevant to the current national debate over abortion rights. The reporters worked with the engagement team on a full social promotion plan, including a video of Swenson explaining the AP’s reporting for TikTok and Instagram.
For scoring significant firsts on a story that widely resonated, Swenson, Fernando and Gomez Licon win this week’s first citation for Best of the Week.