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Indiana doctor says she has been harassed for giving an abortion to a 10-year-old

Dr. Caitlin Bernard, the Indiana doctor who provided an abortion to a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio, speaks during an abortion rights rally in June at the Indiana Statehouse.
Jenna Watson
IndyStar/USA TODAY Network/Reuters
Dr. Caitlin Bernard, the Indiana doctor who provided an abortion to a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio, speaks during an abortion rights rally in June at the Indiana Statehouse.

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.

Abortion rights protesters in the Indiana State Capitol building on Monday.
Jon Cherry / Getty Images
Getty Images
Abortion rights protesters in the Indiana State Capitol building on Monday.

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.