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Doctors rally to defend abortion provider Caitlin Bernard after she was censured

Dr. Caitlin Bernard (center left) sits next to her attorneys during a May 25 hearing before the Indiana Medical Licensing Board in downtown Indianapolis.
Mykal McEldowney
The Indianapolis Star via AP
Dr. Caitlin Bernard (center left) sits next to her attorneys during a May 25 hearing before the Indiana Medical Licensing Board in downtown Indianapolis.

Hundreds of Indiana doctors are coming to the defense of Caitlin Bernard, the obstetrician/gynecologist who was recently punished by a state licensing board for talking publicly about providing an abortion for a 10-year-old rape victim.

In public statements, doctors across a range of specialties are speaking out against the board's decision, and warning that it could have dangerous implications for public health.

"I hate to say, I think this is completely political," says Ram Yeleti, a cardiologist in Indianapolis. "I think the medical board could have decided not to take this case."

In March 2020, as hospitals everywhere were starting to see extremely sick patients, Yeleti was leading a medical team that had cared for the first Indiana patient to die from COVID. At a press conference alongside Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, Yeleti tried to warn the public that the coronavirus was real and deadly.

"I want to explain how real this is," Yeleti said after he stepped up to the microphone to explain the news that day in 2020. "How real this is for all of us."

He and others provided a few basic details: The patient was over 60, had some other health issues, and had died from the virus earlier that day in Marion County, Ind.

"There was a sense of high sense of urgency to get the word out as immediately as possible," Yeleti says now, reflecting on that time. "I think we needed to make it real for people."

So he was alarmed when Indiana's Medical Licensing Board concluded last week that Bernard had violated patient privacy laws by speaking publicly about her unnamed patient.

Last summer, days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Bernard told The Indianapolis Star she'd provided an abortion for a 10-year-old rape victim who'd had to cross state lines after Ohio banned abortion.

Indiana's Republican Attorney General, Todd Rokita, expressed anger at Bernard after she spoke out about the case.

Her employer, Indiana University Health, conducted its own review last year and found no privacy violations. But the licensing board took up the case after Rokita complained, and voted to reprimand Bernard and fine her $3000.

In an open letter signed by more than 500 Indiana doctors, Yeleti asks the board to reconsider its decision, saying it sets a "dangerous and chilling precedent." The letter is set to be published Sunday in The Indianapolis Star.

Indiana's Medical Licensing Board has not responded to requests for comment.

Another doctor who signed the letter, Anita Joshi, is a pediatrician in the small town of Crawfordsville, Ind. She says speaking in general terms about the kinds of cases she's seeing is often part of helping her patients understand potential health risks.

"I very often will say to a mom who is, for example, hesitant about giving their child a vaccine, 'Well, you know, we have had a 10-year-old who has had mumps in this practice,' " Joshi says.

But now she worries she could get into trouble for those kinds of conversations.

So does Bernard Richard, a family medicine doctor outside Indianapolis. He says it's part of his job to educate the public, just like Dr. Caitlin Bernard did.

"Due to this incident, I had patients who said to me, 'I had no idea that someone could even get pregnant at the age of 10,' " Richard says. "You can easily see how that might be important when someone is making decisions about controversial issues such as abortion. This information matters."

Dr. Tracey Wilkinson, who teaches pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, shares that concern.

"These stories are devastating. They're heartbreaking. I wish that they never existed, but they do," Wilkinson says. "And I think part of the public's lack of belief that this could happen, or did happen, is because there's not enough people talking about it."

Wilkinson, who describes herself as a "dear friend" of Dr. Bernard, signed Yeleti's open letter. She also co-wrote an opinion piece published in Stat News by founding members of the Good Trouble Coalition, an advocacy group for healthcare providers.

The coalition issued its own statement supporting Bernard, and noting that the American Medical Association code of ethics says doctors should "seek change" when laws and policies are against their patients' best interests.

"As a physician in Indiana, everybody is scared. Everybody is upset," Wilkinson says. "Everybody is wondering if they could be next."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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