Opinion: Targeting the doctor who treated a pregnant child was a farce

The first physician to publicly fall victim to the antiabortion madness that has followed the overturning of Roe vs. Wade was vindicated last month when Indiana medical officials ruled that she did not fail to report child abuse and was not unfit to practice medicine after providing abortion care to a 10-year-old and telling a reporter about it.

Ludicrously, though, the state medical board fined Dr. Caitlin Bernard $3,000 for violating her unnamed patient’s privacy rights. The board members’ ruling, as it’s been reported, didn’t make clear exactly what protected information she had disclosed.

I have been rooting hard for Bernard, an OB-GYN who works for Indiana University Health, ever since Republican Indiana Atty. Gen. Todd Rokita began a campaign of harassment against her. She is exactly the kind of thoughtful and courageous physician we need at a moment when women’s reproductive rights are being trampled in statehouses around the country.

Stipple-style portrait illustration of Robin Abcarian

Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian

Seeing clips of her wiping away tears and defending herself for nearly 15 hours in a hearing room is proof that we are now living in a dystopia where “logic and proportion,” to quote Grace Slick, “have fallen sloppy dead.”

About a year ago, four days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, Bernard was at an abortion rights rally, talking about the girl’s case with a colleague. A reporter for the Indianapolis Star who was working on a story about the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision overheard her and asked her about it.

Without divulging any information that compromised her patient’s confidentiality, Bernard said she had received a call from a child abuse doctor in Ohio, where abortion had suddenly become illegal after six weeks of pregnancy. A youngster who was three days over the limit needed abortion care. In a sane world, a state would not force a 10-year-old to bear a child after rape, or to cross state lines for help.

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Yet here we are.

The Star story caught fire. Even President Biden decried the injustice. Conservatives went wild, accusing Bernard of making the story up. “Another lie. Anyone surprised?” brayed Ohio Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan in a tweet he later deleted.

The Republican attorney general of Ohio flatly stated on Fox News that there was “not a whisper anywhere” of a 10-year-old being raped in his state. He was either lying or out of the loop. Two days later, the Columbus Dispatch reported that there had been an arrest and confession in the case. Also, it turns out, the child was 9 when she was raped.

Rokita’s blatantly unprofessional behavior continued to inflame the situation. He described Bernard to Fox News as “this abortion activist acting as a doctor with a history of failing to report.” In violation of state law, he publicly discussed his plan to investigate Bernard, which a judge said caused her “irreparable harm.”

The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission launched an investigation into Rokita after the former dean of Indiana University‘s law school filed a complaint against him. “If he can throw the entire weight of his office without consequence to attack Dr. Bernard, he can do so to target any private citizen with whom he disagrees,” wrote Lauren Robel, the former dean. “This is the opposite of the rule of law.”

Bernard, who has been threatened and harassed, has notified Rokita that she may sue him for defamation; she has until July 2024 to file a lawsuit.

Rokita, for his part, behaved as if he’d won a huge victory after the medical board hearing. “Thanks to my amazing team,” he tweeted, “the abortion doctor got the maximum civil fine for violating three counts of privacy laws and received a public reprimand to go into a national database.”

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Donna Shalala, the former U.S. Health and Human Services secretary who helped draft the federal HIPAA patient privacy law, told the Indianapolis Star that there was “no way” Bernard had disclosed enough information to identify her young patient. “They’re criminalizing the practice of medicine,” she said, “and they’re literally asking doctors in this country to do harm.”

The endgame of political cynics like Rokita is the complete banning of abortion in America, despite overwhelming public sentiment that it should be legal in most circumstances.

I wish I could say a total ban is never going to happen, but I’ve given up making predictions about the strength of our democracy’s guardrails or the Supreme Court’s dedication to human rights.

One thing we are able to predict with a high degree of confidence, though, is the number of people who will die if they are forced to bear children they don’t want. It is incontrovertibly true that childbirth is far more dangerous to a woman’s health than abortion.

This country’s maternal mortality rate is already shamefully high for a wealthy nation. An estimated 23.8 maternal deaths occur in the U.S. for every 100,000 births, almost three times more than in most peer nations.

University of Colorado sociologist Amanda Stevenson predicted in a 2021 paper that if both maternal mortality rates and the number of pregnancies per year remained constant, a total abortion ban would raise the maternal mortality rate by about 21% in the overall population, and by about 33% among Black people.

This is, of course, a sweeping hypothetical, but it makes sense.

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As Stevenson writes, “The coming abortion bans, if totally successful in preventing people from getting wanted abortions, will increase maternal deaths simply because childbirth in the U.S. is much deadlier than induced abortion.”

Do antiabortion extremists understand the inherent cruelty of forcing a 10-year-old to give birth? If doctors like Caitlin Bernard are silenced, opponents will never face the awful truth of what the Supreme Court has wrought.


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