The Indiana doctor who ignited a national uproar after telling the story of an abortion she performed on a 10-year-old rape victim is preparing to sue Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita for defamation.
The story of the 10-year-old, who was raped in Ohio and forced to cross the border into Indiana for an abortion, went viral after Dr. Caitlin Bernard first told it to the Indianapolis Star. The story was cited by President Joe Biden in a speech on executive action following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Republicans including Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and Rep. Jim Jordan, as well as the Wall Street Journal editorial board and other conservative media outlets, immediately cast doubt on the story.
But even after the arrest of a 27-year-old man in the sexual assault of the child validated the Bernard and the Star’s reporting, Rokita said in an appearance on Fox News—as a picture of Bernard was displayed beside him—that he would launch an investigation into whether Bernard reported the rape, threatening her “licensure.”
Rokita also claimed Bernard was an “abortion activist acting as a doctor” and had a “history of failing to report” child sex abuse—although that claim appears to be based solely on a series of 2018 consumer complaints, which are allegations, filed by the anti-abortion group Indiana Right to Life.
There is no history of disciplinary action ever being taken against Bernard, according to Medical Licensing Board of Indiana records.
Bernard’s lawyer sent a tort claim notice to Rokita on Tuesday, which is a required precondition in Indiana for filing a lawsuit against the state. Rokita could have found Bernard’s disciplinary record was clean with a “simple check” of the licensing board website. (The letter was first reported by Politico.)
“Mr. Rokita either knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the statements,” the letter sent by Bernard’s attorney, Kathleen Delaney, said. “Mr. Rokita recklessly and/or negligently failed to ascertain whether the statements about Dr. Bernard’s licensure were true or false before making them.”
In a statement provided to VICE News, a spokesperson called Rokita “a leader in the pro-life movement” whose “historic work has further distinguished Indiana as a protector of unborn life and women.”
“This is part of a divisive narrative and an attempt to distract from the important work of the office, including the duty to determine whether practitioners have violated the standards of practice in his or her profession, as well as federal and state laws,” the statement said.
The letter from Bernard’s lawyer says Bernard "intends to seek damages for security costs, legal fees, reputational harm, and emotional distress." No dollar amount is disclosed as “the harm is ongoing,” according to the letter.
Now that the letter has been filed, the state has 90 days to investigate or settle the claim with Bernard, after which Bernard is free to file a lawsuit if no resolution has been reached.
“Mr. Rokita’s false and misleading statements about alleged misconduct by Dr. Bernard in her profession constitute defamation per se,” Delaney’s letter says. “The statements have been and continue to be published by or on behalf of Mr. Rokita and the Office of the Attorney General.
“To the extent that these statements exceed the general scope of Mr. Rokita’s authority as Indiana’s Attorney General, the statement forms the basis of an actionable defamation claim against Mr. Rokita individually.”
Since the story went viral, Bernard has largely remained quiet, although she tweeted last week, after it was confirmed that she reported the abuse, that she “hopes to be able to share my story soon.”
“It has been a difficult week, but my colleagues and I will continue to provide healthcare ethically, lovingly, and bravely each and every day,” Bernard said.