The Indiana Medical Licensing Board in the Midwestern United States has opened a disciplinary hearing against a doctor after she spoke out last June about offering abortion care to a 10-year-old rape victim.
The doctor, Caitlin Bernard, initially told her story to The Indianapolis Star newspaper to illustrate the immediate consequences of a Supreme Court decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion.
That story sparked a national outcry, with abortion rights activists denouncing the hurdles the 10-year-old faced and detractors blaming Bernard for her actions.
At Thursday’s hearing, the board heard a complaint from Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, a Republican and abortion rights opponent, who accused Bernard of violating both state and federal law.
The complaint seeks “appropriate disciplinary action” against Bernard. The board is authorized to suspend or even revoke a doctor’s license.
The Attorney General’s office has alleged that Bernard violated Indiana law by failing to report the rape to authorities, as well as federal patient privacy standards.
Bernard “has spoken to the press repeatedly and regularly to continue coverage of her patient’s private life,” the indictment said.
While the patient was never named in any of Bernard’s interviews, the complaint accuses Bernard of initiating “an intense media search” for information about the girl.
However, Bernard and her attorneys have denied any violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the law that protects patient privacy.
At Thursday’s hearing, Bernard defended her ability as a physician to speak broadly on medical issues in the public interest.
“I think it’s incredibly important for people to understand the real impact of this country’s laws on abortion,” Bernard said. She added that hypotheses rarely have the same effect on public consciousness.
Last July, Bernard’s employer, Indiana University Health, issued a statement confirming that the doctor had complied with patient privacy laws.
Bernard has also dismissed allegations that she failed to file proper paperwork to document the 10-year-old’s case.
She said she followed protocol for reporting child abuse cases to hospital staff. News outlets such as the New York Times and National Public Radio have also reported that she followed procedures for documenting abortions with the state.
At the time of the abortion on June 30, the rape was already under investigation by police in Ohio, the child’s home state.
But with the U.S. Supreme Court’s revocation last year of Roe v Wade — the 1973 decision that guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion — Ohio was able to impose an existing six-week abortion ban that had been embroiled in legal controversy since 2019.
That forced the 10-year-old and her mother to seek abortion care across state lines, in Indiana. When Bernard first heard about the 10-year-old, she was six weeks and three days pregnant.
The child eventually had a medicated abortion and in July a 27-year-old suspect in the rape case was arrested.
Bernard’s public statements on the case provoked a political storm, with many abortion advocates — and even prominent politicians such as Ohio Representative Jim Jordan — casting doubt on the veracity of the story.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, even referenced the story at a press conference.
“A 10-year-old should be forced to give birth to a rapist’s child?” Biden told reporters and vented his outrage. “I can’t think of anything more extreme.”
Alice Morical, Bernard’s lawyer, said that while her client had dealt with child abuse cases before, this story scrutinized her like never before.
“Dr. Bernard could not have foreseen the atypical and intense attention this story received,” Morical explained Thursday. “She didn’t expect politicians to say she made up the story.”
Care groups associated with Bernard, such as Planned Parenthood And Reproductive health doctorshave also defended her, arguing that attacks on her professionalism are “politically motivated”.
But at Thursday’s hearing, Indiana Deputy Attorney General Cory Voight argued that it was Bernard who was promoting her own political agenda.
“There hasn’t been a case like this before the board of directors,” Voight said. “No doctor has been so bold in pursuing his own agenda.”
Vought’s words echoed those of Attorney General Rokita. Back in July last year, Rokita appeared on Fox News to label Bernard an “abortion activist who acts like a doctor.” He promised at the time to investigate Bernard and “fight this to the end”.
Bernard sued to have his investigation shut down, resulting in patients’ medical records being subpoenaed, but in December Marion County Judge Heather Welch denied her request.
However, the judge also ruled that Rokita himself had violated confidentiality laws by publicly discussing his investigation on cable television news without first filing an official complaint.
Rokita’s media appearances, Welch said, were “clearly unlawful violations of the statute of licensing investigations’ requirement that employees of the Attorney General’s Office maintain confidentiality about ongoing investigations until so directed to prosecution.”