Indiana reprimands doctor for talking publicly about Ohio 10-year-old rape victim's abortion

However, the doctor is allowed to continue practicing medicine.

May 26, 2023, 3:28 PM

The Indiana Medical Licensing Board decided late Thursday to reprimand and fine a doctor after ruling that she violated patient privacy laws by talking to a newspaper reporter about providing an abortion to a 10-year-old rape victim from neighboring Ohio.

After an hourslong hearing, the board voted to issue Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Caitlin Bernard a letter of reprimand and a fine of $3,000, but refused a request from Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita to suspend Bernard's license. The board dismissed Rokita's allegations that Bernard violated state law by not reporting the child abuse to Indiana authorities.

Bernard became a flashpoint in the national debate on abortion rights after performing the procedure on the Ohio girl last June, not long after the United States Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide nearly 50 years ago. The unprecedented Supreme Court decision put into effect an Ohio law that banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Bernard said the girl was six weeks and three days into her pregnancy when she traveled across state lines to Indiana, which at the time allowed abortions to be performed up to 20 weeks after fertilization.

The physician has been under fire from Rokita, a Republican who opposes abortion, and the two have been in a dispute for months. The Indiana attorney general submitted a complaint against Bernard to the state medical licensing board in December, claiming that she violated federal and state law relating to patient privacy and reporting child abuse.

A judge then threw out a lawsuit filed by Bernard and her colleague, Dr. Amy Caldwell, against Rokita to prevent his office from accessing patients' medical records and investigating abortion providers. The judge declined to provide a preliminary injunction against Rokita due to his referral of investigations into Bernard to the Indiana Medical Licensing Board, saying the board now has jurisdiction over the investigations.

PHOTO: Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita speaks on Nov. 8, 2022, in Schererville, Ind.
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita speaks on Nov. 8, 2022, in Schererville, Ind.
Darron Cummings/AP, FILE

Bernard's lawsuit had accused Rokita of infringing on patient-doctor confidentiality and claims that he is targeting physicians who provide legal medical care including abortions, according to court filings.

An Ohio investigation ultimately resulted in a 27-year-old man being charged with the rape of the 10-year-old girl.

Bernard told the Indiana Medical Licensing Board that she complied with the investigation. She said the patient was hospitalized after being given a medication abortion so that the fetal remains could be collected and submitted as evidence.

In her testimony at a hearing in Indianapolis on Thursday, Bernard heavily criticized Ohio and Indiana politicians for politicizing the case.

"I think that if the Attorney General, Todd Rokita, had not chosen to make this his political stunt we would not be here today," Bernard said. "I don't think that anyone would have been looking into this story as any different than any other interview that I have ever given if it was not politicized the way that it was by public figures in our state and in Ohio."

Bernard argued that she does not see abortion as a political issue, but rather a part of comprehensive reproductive healthcare. Bernard said she was one of only two complex family specialists in Indiana and has done interviews with reporters in the past that have not received as much attention.

PHOTO: Dr. Caitlin Bernard looks at her phone, May 25, 2023, before a hearing in front of the state medical board at the Indiana Government South building in downtown Indianapolis.
Dr. Caitlin Bernard looks at her phone, May 25, 2023, before a hearing in front of the state medical board at the Indiana Government South building in downtown Indianapolis.
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/USA Today Network

Bernard told the board that she did not reveal any identifiable information about the patient to the press, but thought it was important for the public to know the impact abortion bans could have on care in the state. She said a hypothetical would not have sent across that message.

"I think that it is incredibly important for people to understand the real-world impacts of the laws of this country about abortion or otherwise," Bernard said in her testimony. "I think it is important for people to know what patients will have to go through because of legislation that is being passed and a hypothetical does not make that impact."

"It does not help people understand what is happening and I think people need to know, again, the real-life impacts of those laws so that they could make their own determinations about whether to support or oppose them, again. Particularly if those laws are about to be passed in their own states," she added.

Bernard also told the board she properly reported the case of child abuse in line with her hospital's guidelines when she reported it to Ohio authorities. Ohio is where the patient lived at the time and where the abuse occurred.

"The Medical Licensing Board exonerated Dr. Bernard on Attorney General Rokita's most serious and completely unsubstantiated claims: (1) that Dr. Bernard allegedly failed to report child abuse, and (2) that Dr. Bernard is 'unfit' to practice medicine," said the law firm of Hoover Hull Turner, the lawyers representing Bernard. "The Board Chair even called Dr. Bernard a 'good doctor.' While we wholeheartedly disagree with the letter of reprimand on privacy issues, we are proud of Dr. Bernard for standing up for access to compassionate medical care and for her consummate professionalism during these unprecedented proceedings."

Both institutions where Bernard works, Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Indiana University Health, issued statements supporting her after the medical board issued its decision.

"The fight to do what's right isn't easy. Dr. Bernard has repeatedly placed her profession, her reputation, and her livelihood on the line in her efforts to advance public health and serve her community. It is an honor to work with and support providers like Dr. Bernard -- who are committed to care no matter what," Rebecca Gibron, the CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawaii, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky, said in a statement Friday.

"Dr. Bernard's unwavering dedication to her patients and profession is laudable, but the lengths she was forced to go to continue to deliver safe and legal care while experiencing abusive and hostile conditions is unacceptable. This could have all been avoided had Indiana AG Todd Rokita not made a mockery of his office–no provider should ever have to face politically motivated attacks simply for doing their job," Gibron said. "Every person, in every circumstance, deserves access to health care when and where they need it. Dr. Bernard is an example of what it takes to make this basic human right a reality."

Indiana University Health said it did not agree with the medical board's decision.

"We appreciate the Medical Licensing Board's time dedicated to understanding the issues involving our colleague Dr. Caitlin Bernard. We are pleased she will continue to be a member of our medical team and provide compassionate care to her patients. We do not agree with the Board's decision regarding patient privacy regulations and stand by the HIPAA risk assessment. We believe Dr. Bernard was compliant with privacy laws," Indiana University Health said in a statement.