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Doctor who provided an abortion for a young rape victim speaks out

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As Indiana lawmakers consider a bill that would ban most abortions in that state, an Indiana doctor is speaking out. Dr. Caitlin Bernard provided an abortion by medication for a 10-year-old girl from Ohio in late June after Ohio's trigger ban prohibiting most abortions took effect. NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon covers reproductive rights. And she sat down for an interview with Dr. Bernard yesterday. And Sarah McCammon is with us now to talk about it. Good morning, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So Sarah, why is Dr. Bernard speaking now?

MCCAMMON: Well, Dr. Bernard has been silent for several weeks as she faced attacks from prominent conservatives who questioned both the story about this 10-year-old patient and Dr. Bernard's credibility. Now, some of those attacks continued even after a 27-year-old man was charged with the girl's rape in Ohio and after the state of Indiana produced documents that appear to corroborate Bernard's account. And she told me she wants the public to understand from her perspective as a doctor that there are situations where pregnancies can go very wrong and where terminating a pregnancy is the safest option for a person who's pregnant.

CAITLIN BERNARD: I think what's been lost in the political discourse about abortion is that abortion is health care, that, again, there are so many situations that people may face for which abortion care is necessary, is life-saving. And I think it's important for people to understand the real-life impacts of the laws and this political discourse.

MCCAMMON: And, Leila, while she said she couldn't speak specifically about any particular patient, Dr. Bernard told me that every doctor who provides reproductive health care can remember their youngest patient, whether they provided an abortion or a delivery to her. And she said, unfortunately, these cases are not unheard of. And young girls do sometimes find themselves in tragic situations.

FADEL: Now, Dr. Bernard mentioned not only laws, like abortion bans, but also the political discourse around the issue. And like you mentioned, she's been attacked by prominent conservatives and public officials. How has that impacted her?

MCCAMMON: Well, she says she's experienced harassment along with a lot of support in these past few weeks. She is worried about the safety of her family. We should mention, in the past, she's faced threats. The FBI has been involved. Certainly, other abortion providers over the years have faced threats and violence. So it's a serious concern. Indiana's attorney general, Todd Rokita, has repeatedly claimed, without providing evidence, that Bernard has failed to properly report abortions. Last week, speaking to a right-wing media outlet called Real America's Voice, he reiterated those claims. And he accused Bernard of using the girl's story to, quote, "further a pro-abortion narrative."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TODD ROKITA: That's the problem here, one of the many problems. The last thing you call a person like that, who does that to a 10-year-old to further her ideology - the last thing you call her is a victim.

MCCAMMON: Now, Dr. Bernard's attorney, in response to some of these statements, had sent him a cease-and-desist letter earlier this month, and last week sent a more formal notice as a first step toward a possible defamation lawsuit. And in a statement to NPR yesterday, Rokita called that letter, quote, "an attempt to intimidate and obstruct his work." Here's how Bernard responded when I asked her about that.

BERNARD: One of us is the state attorney general. And one of us is a physician. And it's very clear who is being intimidated in this situation. I will continue to provide access to safe, legal care to the best of my ability. And I can't say what he will do.

MCCAMMON: She says her goal in all of this is to make sure doctors can feel safe providing care to patients in accordance with the law.

FADEL: Now, Indiana law currently allows abortion up to about halfway through a pregnancy. But that could change. Lawmakers are meeting this week to discuss a proposal to ban most abortions. Where does that effort stand? And what would it mean for doctors like Caitlin Bernard?

MCCAMMON: Right. That bill would have narrow exceptions for rape and incest and to save a pregnant woman's life. It is advancing in the Indiana legislature. The state senate is expected to debate it this week. Dr. Bernard says even those exceptions would put patients in danger.

BERNARD: Medicine is not a list of exceptions. I cannot try to fit every single situation into a law. It's going to be very dangerous. We're going to see people who are forced to continue unsafe pregnancies, who are going to die because of those pregnancies. We're going to see young women forced to leave their home, travel far away for the care that they need.

MCCAMMON: And I should mention, West Virginia is also having a special session this week where they're considering the issue of abortion.

FADEL: NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon. Thank you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "EKTACHROME/ECTOPLASM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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.