An Indiana doctor who performed an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim last year violated his young patient's privacy by discussing the case with a reporter, the state medical board ruled late Thursday.
Caitlin Bernard, an Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist, came into the national spotlight last year after she performed an abortion for an Ohio girl soon after the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which left states free to restrict or strictly prohibit abortion.
The state medical board decided to issue Dr. a warrant and fine of $3,000. Bernard. But it ruled against a harsher sentence, which could include suspension or probation, instead ruling that Dr. Bernard deserves to return to his practice.
The board also acquitted him of another allegation that he failed to properly report the girl's rape to the authorities.
The decision was the culmination of Dr. Bernard for a year by the state attorney general, Todd Rokita, a Republican who opposes abortion.
The Ohio girl had traveled to Indiana for the procedure after her home state imposed a ban on most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Dr. Bernard told a reporter for the Indianapolis Star about the case during an abortion rights demonstration. He did not name the patient, but the case quickly became a flashpoint in the early days of heated debate following the Supreme Court decision, catching President Biden's attention and turning conservative attention and anger toward Dr. Bernard.
“I don't think he meant for this to go viral,” said Dr. John Strobel, president of the board, called Dr. Bernard as “the good doctor.”
“But I think we as doctors need to be more careful in these situations,” he said.
Mr. Rokita, who has filed a complaint against Dr. Bernard to the medical board, applauding the results.
“This case is about patient privacy and the trust between doctors and patients is broken,” Mr Rokita said in a statement late Thursday. “What if it was your child or your patient or relative who was going through a sensitive medical crisis, and the doctor, who you thought was on your side, ran to the press for political reasons?”
Dr. Bernard criticizes Mr. Rokita for turning the case into a “political stunt”.
During the trial, which lasted more than 15 hours, ending just before midnight, Dr. Bernard said that his own comments did not reveal any protected patient health information. Instead, said Dr. Bernard, what happened was a bitter political battle. Some conservatives cast doubt on the story and pushed forward requests to confirm it. Eventually, the man accused of raping the girl appeared in court and was linked to the case.
Dr. Bernard, who publicly advocates for abortion rights, says he has an ethical obligation to educate the public about pressing public health issues, especially questions of reproductive health – his area of expertise.
Last July, after Indiana scheduled a special legislative session on abortion, Dr. Bernard fears that lawmakers in his home state will issue strict restrictions on abortion access similar to Ohio laws that force his 10-year-old patients to cross state lines.
Indiana passed a law outlawing most abortions, with narrow exceptions for rape and incest. The law was suspended pending a legal challenge. Abortion is currently legal in Indiana up to 22 weeks.
Dr Bernard said he wanted to highlight the potential ramifications of laws restricting access to abortion, and “didn't anticipate” how much of the public would focus on the Ohio girl's case.
“I think it's very important for people to understand the true impact of this country's laws,” he said.
Peter Schwartz, a Pennsylvania OB-GYN and chairman of the American Medical Association Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, supports Dr. Bernard to talk about the Ohio patient.
Schwartz said Dr. Bernard has a “firm obligation to speak out” on reproductive health issues, noting that he is one of only two doctors in Indiana with expertise in complicated obstetric cases such as second trimester abortions.
Lawyers on both sides of the trial summoned medical secrecy experts to find out if Dr. Bernard violated the guidelines of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, which regulate the protection of patient privacy.
Employer Dr. Bernard, Indiana University Health, found that he was not violating HIPAA rules because the patient could not be identified based on the information Dr. Bernard publicly.
“The cause and effect here is not: ‘Dr. Bernard's story allows patients to share protected information,'” said Alice Morical, attorney for the doctor.
But members of the medical board, consisting of six doctors and one attorney – all appointed by the governor – ruled that, taken together, the details Dr. Bernard's information about the patient — including his age, his rape, his state of origin, and his abortion — qualifies as identifying information.
“Dr. Bernard is a skilled and competent doctor, and I would convey that he is the exact doctor that people want their children to see in these circumstances,” said Ms. Morical.