Indiana doctor says she has been harassed for giving an abortion to a 10-year-old Ohioan< < Back to
WASHINGTON, D.C. (NPR) — An Indiana doctor says she has faced harassment after the story of one of her patients — a 10-year-old Ohio girl who became pregnant as a result of rape — captured the nation’s attention as a flashpoint in the debate over abortion rights.
In the weeks since Roe v. Wade was overturned, Dr. Caitlin Bernard has become a household name, with her face shown on right-wing television and her work criticized by public officials, including Indiana’s attorney general, Todd Rokita.
She has worried about her own safety and the safety of her family, Bernard said Tuesday in an interview with NPR’s Sarah McCammon.
And she said the actions of Rokita, an anti-abortion Republican who has called for an investigation into Bernard and suggested without providing evidence that she neglected to follow Indiana state reporting requirements for abortion providers, amounted to “harassment.”
“It’s honestly been very hard for me, for my family,” Bernard said. “It’s hard to understand why a political figure, a prominent figure in the state, would want to come after physicians who are helping patients every single day in their state.”
Yet asked if she thought the attacks on her by prominent conservatives would have a chilling effect on other abortion providers around the country, Bernard said it would do the opposite.
“What I’ve heard from my colleagues in Indiana and around the country is that we have been silent for too long, that we have not spoken out enough,” she said. “So, no. I don’t see that it will stop physicians. I think it will motivate them.”
The case of the 10-year-old girl
Bernard came under the heat of the national spotlight after she treated a 10-year-old Ohio girl who had been a victim of rape.
On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned decades of abortion-rights precedent when it handed down its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. More than a dozen so-called “trigger bans” restricting abortion went into effect around the country — including in Ohio, where nearly all abortions after six weeks are banned, even in cases of rape and incest.
Soon after, the girl’s family discovered that she was pregnant. They traveled across state lines to Indiana, where abortion has remained legal. Bernard administered the girl’s medication abortion.
The story generated widespread attention and controversy after Bernard told the Indianapolis Star about her patient. The girl’s plight was cited by President Biden as an example of the fallout from Dobbs.
Prominent conservatives questioned the story, including Ohio’s attorney general and the Wall Street Journal editorial board — until a 27-year-old man was charged with raping the girl.
In Tuesday’s interview with NPR, Bernard declined to comment on the 10-year-old’s case, citing patient privacy laws. But the sexual assault of children is not uncommon, she said.
“Every OB-GYN can tell you the youngest patient that they have taken care of, whether that’s providing abortion care or delivering their baby,” she said.
Bernard would not say if she regretted speaking publicly about the 1o-year-old, or whether she would have handled it differently had she known the story would have become such a political flashpoint.
But she did say she had received an “immense outpouring” of support from medical professionals in Indiana and across the country.
“I think people realize how important our voice as physicians as advocates for access to care can be. I hope it will be inspiring and not deterring,” she said.
A legal conflict with Indiana’s attorney general
After the 10-year-old’s story caught the attention of advocates on both sides of the abortion debate, Rokita called for an investigation into Bernard.
The Republican Indiana attorney general has claimed — without providing evidence — that Bernard had a history of failing to follow state reporting requirements for abortion providers.
Then Indiana health officials released a document indicating she had, in fact, reported providing a medication abortion for a 10-year-old rape victim in the days after the Dobbs decision allowed Ohio’s abortion ban to take effect.
Bernard has threatened to sue Rokita for defamation. Last week, her lawyer sent a notice to Rokita’s office, an important step that lays the groundwork for a potential lawsuit under Indiana law.
In a statement provided to NPR, Rokita criticized Bernard’s decision to bring the case of the 10-year-old to the attention of the media. He vowed to see his investigation “through to the very end.”
“The recent tort claim is not just an attempt to distract, but it’s also an attempt to intimidate, obstruct, and stop my office’s monumental progress to save lives,” Rokita said. “It will take a lot more than that to intimidate us.”
Bernard said Tuesday that she had not decided yet whether to proceed with a defamation suit. Rokita’s office has not contacted Bernard about his investigation, she said.
“One of us is the state attorney general, and one of us is a physician — and it’s very clear who is being intimidated in this situation,” Bernard said. “I will continue to provide access to safe legal care to the best of my ability, and I can’t say what he will do.”
“I think it’s important for us as providers to feel safe working in the state of Indiana. I think it’s important for physicians to know that when they follow the law and when they take care of patients in need of care, that they can do so free of persecution, free of harassment,” she continued.
In Indiana, where Bernard works, most abortions could soon be banned
For now, abortions remain legal in Indiana. The state currently allows abortion until 20 weeks after fertilization, though women seeking the procedure must receive in-person counseling then wait at least 18 hours.
But that access could soon end.
Indiana state lawmakers are currently in the midst of a special legislative session focused in part on abortion. The leading proposal would prohibit nearly all abortions except in cases of rape, incest or in which a pregnant woman’s life is endangered. Indiana’s governor is a Republican, and the party controls both chambers of the state legislature.
The bill has drawn mixed reviews, even from opponents of abortion rights; some groups say the bill is poorly drafted and would not do enough to prevent abortions.
The proposal is being closely watched because Indiana is surrounded on three sides by states where abortion rights are in question: Ohio, where abortion is already severely restricted, and two states, Kentucky and Michigan, where strict bans are currently on pause and under review by courts.
Should it pass, the Indiana law would be “very dangerous,” Bernard said.
“We’re going to see women dying. We’re going to see not only abortion care affected, but care for miscarriages, care for complications of pregnancy, infertility care, contraception. Really, the list is endless,” she said. “We’re going to see physicians harassed, persecuted. We’re going to see patients being forced to continue unsafe pregnancies and die because of those pregnancies.”
No matter what happens with the legislation, Bernard says she remains committed to providing health care in the state.
“I came to work in Indiana to provide comprehensive, compassionate, evidence-based care to to women in Indiana. And I intend to continue to do so,” she said.
Marisa Peñaloza contributed to this report.
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
An Indiana doctor who provided an abortion to a 10-year-old abuse victim is speaking out for the first time after weeks of being at the center of a national controversy. Dr. Caitlin Bernard provided the abortion for the young girl from Ohio just days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing Ohio’s abortion ban to take effect. Bernard is speaking publicly as lawmakers in Indiana consider legislation that would prohibit most abortions. We’re joined by NPR’s Sarah McCammon, who spoke with Dr. Bernard earlier today. Sarah, what did she tell you?
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: So, Juana, I sat down with Dr. Bernard this morning, and I asked if she could just describe what she was feeling when she first heard about the 10-year-old girl who was pregnant and unable to get an abortion in Ohio. Now, Dr. Bernard told me she couldn’t get into specifics about any particular patient, including the one that’s put her in the national spotlight, but she said she hears from patients with a variety of needs and concerns. And she feels for them.
CAITLIN BERNARD: Every time I get a call about a patient who needs abortion care particularly, my heart goes out to the patient, to the physician who is calling for help. And I feel obligated and honestly honored to be able to care for them as much as I can.
MCCAMMON: As I’m sure you’re aware, there are people who believe for moral reasons, there are powerful lawmakers who believe that there is no reason that an abortion is ever appropriate, even for a young patient who’s a victim. But I want to ask you, as a physician, from a medical perspective – in general, what does it mean for a young girl who is not fully developed, who is not an adult to experience a pregnancy and birth?
BERNARD: Every pregnancy is risky, and that’s the important thing for people to understand. No matter how healthy, no matter your age, every pregnancy is risky. And it’s even riskier for young women. It’s even riskier for people with medical conditions that make pregnancy dangerous. And there are so many unforeseen situations that can arise during a pregnancy for which abortion care is the safest and necessary route for that person.
MCCAMMON: Can you say anything about, you know, a person who’s not a full-grown adult yet? Is that a uniquely difficult situation medically?
BERNARD: Children face particular dangers in pregnancy, particularly, as you mentioned, because of the development of the body – risks for things like pre-eclampsia, high blood pressure during pregnancy, risk for needing a cesarean section and all of the complications that may arise related to that. And there are lots of challenges that they face during their pregnancy, both physically, emotionally, psychologically.
MCCAMMON: Now, after you spoke out earlier this month, many prominent Conservatives questioned both your credibility and the veracity of the news story itself. That was until a 27-year-old man was charged with the rape of a 10-year-old girl in Ohio earlier this month. But even then, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita went on Fox News and went after you specifically. He called for an investigation, suggested that you may have failed to follow state reporting requirements.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TODD ROKITA: Then we have the rape. And then we have this abortion activist acting as a doctor with a history of failing to report. So we’re gathering the information. We’re gathering the evidence as we speak. And we’re going to fight this to the end, including looking at her licensure. If she failed to report it in Indiana, it’s a crime for – to not report – to intentionally not report.
MCCAMMON: Now, you did, in fact, report this abortion. I’ve seen the document from the Indiana Health Department that was released to NPR and other media demonstrating that you reported a procedure involving a 10-year-old patient that occurred on June 30. How have Attorney General Rokita’s public statements affected you?
BERNARD: It’s honestly been very hard for me, for my family. Obviously, I can’t speak to any particular patient or situation, but it’s hard to understand why political figure – prominent figure in the state would want to come after physicians who are helping patients every single day in their state.
MCCAMMON: Why do you think he’s come after you?
BERNARD: Physicians who provide abortion have been a target of political harassment for generations. They’ve been the target of violence, and this is just the latest case of similar harassment that I’m facing now.
MCCAMMON: Living in Indiana, I would imagine you must cross paths with people who oppose abortion sometimes. Does that happen? What are those conversations like?
BERNARD: On an individual basis, I think people are actually much more compassionate than the political discourse makes out to be. I think when you have a one-on-one conversation with somebody about patients that I’ve seen, the experiences that they have, you realize that people who need abortion care are every single one of us. And people realize that when they’re able to have a one-on-one conversation and when it’s brought down to the level, again, of health care and not of political wills.
MCCAMMON: We are just beginning to get a clearer picture of exactly what the post-Roe landscape looks like in this country. We are just over a month past the Dobbs decision now. From your position as a health care provider, what do you see coming?
BERNARD: I think it’s going to be very dangerous. We’re going to see women dying. We’re going to see, again, not only abortion care affected but care for miscarriages, care for complications of pregnancy, infertility care, contraception. Really, the list is endless. When you take away someone’s right to privacy about their medical decisions, the challenges that they face to access lifesaving health care is going to be enormous. We’re going to see physicians harassed, persecuted. We’re going to see patients, you know, being forced to continue unsafe pregnancies and die because of those pregnancies. And I think we’re going to see a rise in, you know, people who are coming out to tell their stories about what they’re experiencing. And I hope that that will show people, again, the real-life impact of these laws. And I am always optimistic that we will be able to reverse course.
MCCAMMON: Do you think these kinds of events – the public pushback, the protests, the attacks by prominent Conservatives like the attorney general of Indiana – will that push some doctors to stop providing abortions, that climate?
BERNARD: What I’ve heard from my colleagues in Indiana and around the country is that we have been silent for too long, that we have not spoken out enough, that we have come to a point of no return, and they will in fact increase their provision of care that is needed. They will work hard to increase access to abortion care wherever they live. And so, no, I don’t see that it will stop physicians. I think it will motivate them.
SUMMERS: Sarah, that conversation with Dr. Caitlin Bernard happened earlier today, and today is also the second day of a special session for the Indiana legislature, where lawmakers are considering that proposal to ban nearly all abortions. What did Dr. Bernard tell you about that bill?
MCCAMMON: She says as a doctor she believes it would harm her patients, particularly those who are facing medical crises or other complex circumstances. And, Juana, as you heard, despite the debate in the legislature, she says she remains hopeful, and she plans to continue serving patients to the fullest extent that she can.
SUMMERS: NPR’s Sarah McCammon spoke with Dr. Caitlin Bernard earlier today. Sarah, thank you for your reporting.
MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.