In a hearing that commenced on Thursday, an Indianapolis doctor who publicly discussed performing an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio faced potential disciplinary action, fueling a heated debate over the case’s political implications in the national abortion discourse.
Indiana’s Republican attorney general, Todd Rokita, has accused Dr. Caitlin Bernard of violating state law by failing to report the child abuse of the girl to Indiana authorities. Additionally, she is accused of violating federal patient privacy laws by disclosing details of the girl’s treatment to a newspaper reporter.
Bernard and her legal team contend that she followed Indiana’s child abuse reporting protocols by informing hospital staff, emphasizing that the girl’s rape was already under investigation by Ohio authorities. They assert that Bernard did not disclose any identifiable information about the girl that would violate privacy laws.
The Indianapolis Star featured the girl’s case in an article on July 1, triggering a national political uproar following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade last June, which led to the enforcement of an Ohio law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Some news outlets and Republican politicians falsely insinuated that Bernard fabricated the story, until a 27-year-old man was charged with the rape in Columbus, Ohio.
During the hearing on Thursday, Bernard’s attorney, Alice Morical, informed the state Medical Licensing Board that the doctor frequently reports cases of child abuse each year and that a hospital social worker had verified with Ohio’s child protection office that it was safe for the girl to return home with her mother.
“Dr. Bernard could not have predicted the extraordinary and intense scrutiny that this story received,” Morical stated. “She did not anticipate politicians accusing her of fabricating the story.”
Rokita’s complaint to the licensing board requested the imposition of “appropriate disciplinary action” without specifying a preferred penalty.
Amidst the heightened attention surrounding the girl’s case last summer, Rokita, a staunch anti-abortion advocate, announced on Fox News that he would investigate Bernard’s actions, labeling her an “abortion activist acting as a doctor.”
Deputy Attorney General Cory Voight argued on Thursday that the board must address what he deemed an “egregious violation” of patient privacy and Bernard’s failure to notify Indiana’s Department of Child Services and the police regarding the rape.
“No case like this has come before the board,” Voight asserted. “No physician has displayed such audacity in pursuing their own agenda.”
Composed of six doctors and one attorney appointed or reappointed by Republican Governor Eric Holcomb, the Indiana board will vote on whether to impose penalties after hearing several hours of testimony. State law grants the board broad discretion, allowing it to issue reprimand letters, suspend, revoke, or place a doctor’s license on probation.
While Ohio’s near-total abortion ban was in effect for approximately two months before being temporarily halted due to an ongoing lawsuit, Indiana’s Republican-dominated Legislature approved a statewide abortion ban following the attention garnered by the Ohio girl’s case. However, abortions continue to be permitted in the state pending a decision from the Indiana Supreme Court on the ban’s constitutionality.
Bernard’s attempt to block Rokita’s investigation last fall proved unsuccessful, though an Indianapolis judge stated that Rokita had engaged in “clearly unlawful breaches” of state confidentiality laws through his public comments about investigating the doctor before filing the medical licensing complaint against her.