Indiana attorney general faces ethics charges for comments about abortion doctor. Now he’s suing her employer

Todd Rokita sued a hospital system that employs a doctor who cared for a 10-year-old rape survivor

Alex Woodward
Tuesday 19 September 2023 00:21 BST
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After his failed efforts to discipline an Indiana doctor who provided emergency abortion care to a 10-year-old rape survivor, the state’s anti-abortion Republican attorney general is now suing her employer.

His lawsuit also comes as he faces three ethics charges from the state Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Commission, which found that Todd Rokita’s statements to right-wing media and elsewhere about Dr Caitlin Bernard in the wake of the high-profile case violated attorney ethics rules.

On 25 May, Indiana’s Medical Licensing Board determined that Dr Bernard violated privacy laws by speaking briefly to a reporter about the case, which drew international attention in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision to revoke a constitutional right to abortion care.

Dr Bernard’s patient travelled from Ohio, where abortion was effectively outlawed at six weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape and incest. Though she gave a generalised anecdote that did not identify anyone involved, the case drew national attention, underscoring the far-reaching consequences of sweeping abortion bans.

The doctor also faced the wrath of GOP officials who falsely suggested that the crime against the 10-year-old girl was a hoax, demanded to see criminal and medical records, or accused her of failing to notify law enforcement about her patient’s case.

During an appearance on Fox News, Mr Rokita called her “an abortion activist acting as a doctor”. He later issued subpoenas to doctors and healthcare facilities seeking medical records relating to the patient.

Records and testimony have shown that the case was reported to state agencies as required under law. Her employer, Indiana University Health, also stated that she did not violate rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

Last year, as Mr Rokita sought to revoke the doctor’s license, a judge argued that he acted unlawfully with his allegations of wrongdoing in violation of his own office’s confidentiality requirements. He caused “irreparable harm” to her reputation with his “unlawful breaches” of confidentiality provisions after he discussed his investigation on national news and in the press, according to a judge.

Dr Caitlin Bernard
Dr Caitlin Bernard (AP)

Mr Rokita’s efforts to professionally discipline Dr Bernard largely fell apart in May, after the state’s licensing board affirmed that she did not fail to report child abuse and that she was not unfit to practice medicine.

And in July, the man who pleaded guilty to raping the 10-year-old girl was sentenced to life in prison, with a possibility of parole after a minimum of 25 years.

Now, in a 28-page federal lawsuit, Mr Rokita is taking aim at Indiana University Health, arguing that instead of “protecting the patient, the hospital chose to protect the doctor, and itself.”

The hospital “has revealed a systemic flaw in its implementation and administration of HIPAA rules that affect the privacy of all its patients,” according to his complaint.

“We hold ourselves accountable every day for providing quality healthcare and securing privacy for our patients,” read a statement from Indiana University Health. “We continue to be disappointed [that] the Indiana Attorney General’s office persists in putting the state’s limited resources toward this matter. We will respond directly to the AG’s office on the filing.”

Meanwhile, Mr Rokita is accused of violating three professional conduct rules after he baselessly called her an “abortion activist acting as a doctor with a history of failure to report” and for “intentionally making public statements and/or directing others to issue public statements” about the investigation into Dr Bernard.

“Our legal team had no involvement in the recent charges filed and therefore cannot comment on them. We will watch how the Disciplinary Commission process proceeds and let the complaint speak for itself,” according to a statement from Dr Bernard’s counsel Kathleen DeLaney.

In a lengthy statement in response, Mr Rokita suggested the committee is made up of “radicals” in an “environment that ‘cancels’ non-compliant citizens through intimidation as well as tactics that can weaponize our respected institutions.”

In the year after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, more than a dozen states have effectively outlawed abortion in most or all circumstances.

Ohio voters will weigh in on an amendment that would create a state constitutional right to an abortion this November.

Following a year-long legal battle, Indiana’s latest anti-abortion law went into effect last month, effectively outlawing most abortions at any point during pregnancy except if the woman’s life or health is seriously at risk.

Abortion is permitted before 22 weeks of pregnancy if a “lethal fetal anomaly” is detected, or until 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape or incest.

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