Indiana medical board reprimands doctor who publicly discussed providing abortion services to 10-year-old Ohio rape victim

Michelle Pemberton/The Indianapolis Star/USA Today Network
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An Indianapolis doctor who publicly revealed she provided abortion services to a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim last year has been reprimanded and fined by Indiana’s medical licensing board after it determined the disclosure violated federal and state patient privacy laws.

The board on Thursday found Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an obstetrician-gynecologist, liable on three counts of violating patient privacy laws after Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita filed a complaint against the doctor in November.

However, the board dismissed two other allegations in the complaint, determining she did not violate laws requiring physicians to immediately report suspected child abuse and keep abreast of mandatory reporting and patient privacy laws.

Bernard will be fined $3,000 and receive a letter of reprimand, according to the board, which agreed to allow her to continue practicing medicine.

The complaint alleged that Bernard violated patient privacy law when she discussed the case of the girl without the consent of the patient or a guardian – even while not using her name – over the summer with the Indianapolis Star.

The disclosure of why the Ohio girl made her medical journey to Indiana, days after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the federal right to abortion, helped make Bernard part of national debate over abortion rights in the county.

Bernard told CNN last year that she provided abortion services to the child in late June, and that the girl traveled to Indiana for the procedure because Ohio, after the Roe ruling, generally banned abortions after early cardiac activity is detected, which is around six weeks into a pregnancy. The girl was six weeks and three days into her pregnancy, Bernard said.

At the time of the procedure, Indiana allowed abortions up to 20 weeks after fertilization. The state then passed a law that would ban abortion at all stages of pregnancy with limited exceptions for rape or incest or to save the woman’s life, prevent any serious health risk to the woman and for lethal fetal abnormalities. However, that law was temporarily blocked, pending court fights.

The case quickly became a flashpoint in the post-Roe clash over abortion rights. Several GOP politicians and media outlets initially cast skepticism on Bernard’s claims until a man was charged with raping the child and an Ohio detective testified that the girl had undergone an abortion in Indianapolis.

The Indiana medical licensing board’s president on Thursday spoke about supporting a sanction against Bernard.

“My reason to recommend a letter of reprimand would be that I don’t think she expected this to go viral,” the board’s president, Dr. John Strobel, said during deliberations. “I don’t think she expected this attention to be brought to this patient.”

“But I do think that we as physicians need to be more careful in this situation,” Strobel said. “I think she’s a good doctor. … I think she’s safe to go back to practice.”

Cory Voight, co-director of the attorney general office’s complex litigation division, said the complaint focused on Bernard’s decision “to speak about her patient to a reporter for the largest newspaper in Indiana.”

“The effect of that decision is everyone, the country, learned about her patient. Learned that a 10-year-old little girl was raped and had an abortion,” Voight said in his opening remarks.

The complaint asked the licensing board to impose “appropriate disciplinary action,” but did not request a specific penalty.

Bernard’s attorney has dismissed Rokita’s complaint as a “last-ditch effort to intimidate” her and other abortion providers. Bernard maintained that she did not release protected details about the child.

“I did not release any protected health information. I complied with all patient confidentiality and HIPAA laws to the best of my knowledge,” Bernard testified on Thursday. “And, again, there was no information that I released that led to her being identified.”

Bernard’s employer, Indiana University Health, said in July that it reviewed the case and determined the doctor was “in compliance with privacy laws.”

Bernard found not liable for child abuse reporting violation

The complaint alleged that Bernard did not follow the correct procedures of reporting child abuse to Indiana authorities after the abortion services were performed.

After deliberations on Thursday, the state medical board concluded that Bernard did not violate the procedures and found her not liable.

Bernard told the board she immediately notified a hospital social worker about the possible abuse. The social worker testified that she contacted officials in Ohio, where the abuse occurred, and that authorities there were already investigating the case.

Bernard reported the abortion procedure to the Indiana Department of Health on July 2 – two days after it was performed – as required by the department, according to agency documents obtained by CNN.

She told the licensing board Thursday that she also submitted the report, which noted the abuse, to Indiana’s Department of Child Services. The department previously declined to publicly confirm whether it received a report from Bernard, citing confidentiality law.

CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe and Kiely Westhoff contributed to this report.

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