Three weeks before the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade picked up, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist, put on her white lab coat, put her baby daughter in a baby carrier, and joined several colleagues who marched into the state Capitol in hopes of delivering a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb.
The letter, signed by hundreds of health professionals, implored Mr Holcomb, a Republican, not to call a special legislative session to further restrict abortions. It carried a poignant political message: “Abortion bans are not popular in our state.”
dr Bernard, who was catapulted into the national spotlight last month for aborting a 10-year-old rape victim, is delivering babies and providing contraceptives, Pap smears and other routine obstetric and gynecological care. She is also one of only a few physicians in her state with specialized training in complex reproductive medicine, including second-trimester abortions.
But some of her riskiest work takes place outside of her hospital, where she campaigns publicly for access to abortion.
Your openness has won a prize. dr Bernard, 37, has faced criticism in right-wing media, has been harassed and is the subject of an investigation by the Indiana Attorney General. She has landed at the center of a post-Roe conflict that the medical community has feared – one that has doctors themselves at the center of political and legal attacks.
“Doctors who perform abortions have been harassed, they have been murdered,” said Dr. Bernard in an interview with the New York Times on Tuesday. “And I think that’s why they’ve had to remain silent for too long to protect their families and it’s created the idea that we’re doing something wrong or illegal. And we’re not. And I feel compelled to say that.”
Threats against abortion providers are hardly new. But Roe’s fall created a startling new legal landscape for doctors.
In Indiana, Attorney General Todd Rokita is investigating whether Dr. Bernard, an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Indiana University School of Medicine, reported the Ohio girl’s abortion to Indiana state officials as required. Records show she did.
Read more about abortion problems in America
In a statement to the Times on Tuesday, the attorney general said he would “follow that duty to the end,” and accused Dr. Bernard, using “the personal trauma of being a 10-year-old rape victim” to “advance her ideological attitude.”
dr Bernard, in turn, says Mr Rokita is just another politician engaged in “government intimidation for their own political purposes”. She has filed a tort suit against him, the first step toward a possible defamation lawsuit.
Medical professionals working in the reproductive health field are closely monitoring events in Indiana, said Dr. Kristin Lyerly, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Wisconsin who coordinates the Upper Midwest reproductive health advocacy group for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Before Roe was overthrown, she said she performed abortions at one of four clinics in Wisconsin. Abortion is now illegal there under an 1849 law making it a criminal offense.
“Those of us who provide abortions have tried to do so discreetly and carefully for many years, knowing that it is a necessary health care measure for our patients,” said Dr. Lyerly. “Now we feel we need to really tell the story and be very open about what we see and experience and what our patients are dealing with while walking the fine line of patient privacy.”
Abortion is just a small part of Dr. Bernard’s practice. She handles complex abortion cases – those where the mother’s life is in danger – at the university’s medical center. She offers abortions — both surgical and medical — several days a month at Planned Parenthood clinics in Indiana and Kentucky.
The work has long included stressful elements that go well beyond providing sensitive medical care: In 2020, she said, the FBI informed Planned Parenthood that it was investigating a kidnapping threat against her daughter.
Her patients describe her as kind and caring; Rebecca Evans, a midwife who sees Dr. Bernard cared for after she suffered a miscarriage, Dr. Bernard as a “full-scope” clinician who “does all these different things, and she’s really passionate about all of it.”
dr Bernard’s commitment, she says, serves her goal of providing patients with the best possible medical care. By restricting abortion options and requiring her to make certain statements — like informing patients that fetuses feel pain during an abortion when the science on the subject is still unclear — the state forces them to practice medicine in a way , which is unsafe and not medically accurate, she says.
She is the plaintiff in a 2019 lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that tried unsuccessfully to overturn Indiana’s ban on almost all second-trimester abortions. She frequently testifies in the state legislature. After Roe was overthrown, she organized a protest. (She also has a tattoo on her left foot depicting a wire hanger — a symbol of dangerous home abortions before the procedure was legal — above the words “Trust women.”)
Indiana currently allows abortions up to 22 weeks. This week, as the Indiana legislature considered a near-total ban on abortion during the legislature she is fighting, Dr. Bernard not there.
Anti-abortion activists left hateful messages on their phones, she says. She continues to visit patients but has dropped a security detail and her colleagues have set up a GoFundMe account to help her with rising legal fees. A personal appearance at the legislature in a tense environment could further fuel the situation.
“The politicization of me and my work has definitely made it difficult for me to continue to be as involved as I have been in the past,” she acknowledged.
Shortly after Roe’s fall, the Indianapolis Star learned about her 10-year-old patient, who had traveled from Ohio, where abortion is banned after six weeks, even for rape or incest. dr Bernard’s allies say it’s no coincidence the 10-year-old child was referred to them; There are very few doctors who could treat such a delicate case.
Earlier this month, President Biden cited the case when he signed an executive order designed to ensure access to abortion drugs. Suddenly all eyes were on Dr. directed to Bernard.
dr Bernard on Tuesday refused to discuss any aspect of the case, citing the girl’s privacy. In addition to worrying about prosecution, she could face consequences at work. As of Tuesday, her employer, Indiana University School of Medicine, a state-funded institution, and Indiana University Health, a nonprofit healthcare system, had been publicly silent about her other than saying she had not violated patient privacy laws.
In a statement to The Times, Indiana University President Pam Whitten and Medical School Dean Dr. Jay Hess, Dr. Bernard remains “a respected member of the faculty”. IU Health called her a “respected and respected doctor” and a “true advocate for the health and well-being of her patients.”
In a way, dr. Bernard’s life prepared her for this moment. She inherited her activist streak from her parents, who grew up in the social-liberal 1960s and lived on a community farm in upstate New York when their children were small.
When she was five, she told her family she was going to be a doctor, her sister Rebeccah Johnson said. When she was 15, she and her sister walked past a phalanx of protesters at a Planned Parenthood clinic to get contraceptives. She later witnessed firsthand the complications women can face from pregnancy when she and her father, a carpenter, went to Guatemala to help run health clinics.
Maybe that’s why she’s always been drawn to obstetrics and gynecology. Early in her career, Dr. Bernard joins a program called AMPATH, run by Indiana University, that brings American doctors to Kenya, where abortion is largely banned.
Almost a third of the patients she saw suffered complications from unsafe home abortions. “We often saw women who were raped, assaulted and now pregnant,” said Dr. Astrid Christoffersen-Deb, her superior.
After graduating from medical school and residency at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY, Dr. Bernard trained at Washington University in St. Louis, where she received accreditation in “complex family planning,” a specialty that qualifies her to handle complicated cases, including second-trimester abortions.
“People who need abortions in the second trimester are often faced with the absolute worst situations imaginable – they have a very desired pregnancy and their baby will not survive or will have an incredibly difficult life and they are trying to spare their child this outcome” , she said, adding, “Politicians, people who are uncomfortable with abortions, have usually never been in situations like this.”
In 2017, Dr. Bernard St. Louis to Indiana, where she became a doctor who advocates for reproductive rights, said Dr. Tracey A. Wilkinson, a pediatrician who worked there with Dr. Bernard is involved with the Indiana chapter of the Reproductive Health Advocacy Project. dr Wilkinson spent all of Monday at the Indiana Capitol and said she felt Dr. Bernard’s absence very strong.
“We don’t know that we’re going to change the way the voting takes place,” said Dr. Wilkinson. “We go on record that someone stood up and said this is wrong. We go so our patients will hear someone who cares about them.”
Indiana’s abortion ban emerged from a Senate committee on Tuesday, drawing critics from across the political spectrum. Abortion rights advocates have called the measure an attack on women, while several anti-abortion activists have criticized exceptions that would allow abortion in cases of rape and incest; One suggested that the 10-year-old patient of Dr. Bernard should have given birth.
If the law is passed, said Dr. Bernard, she will likely refer Indiana women to out-of-state abortion providers. Though she knows it could cause her more trouble, she has no intention of keeping quiet.
“One of the most important things about abortion in America is that people don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “They fear the stigma, vendors fear the stigma that they will be harassed, specifically because they were. So one of the most important things is to be honest.”
MitchSmith contributed to this story.