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The doctor who performed an abortion for a 10-year-old rape victim faces backlash

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The heated politics around abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade have crystallized in recent weeks in the case of a 10-year-old Ohio girl. Her private trauma has become the focus of intense public debate. Here's President Biden's remarks from July 8.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Just last week, it was reported that a 10-year-old girl was a rape victim - 10 years old - and she was forced to have to travel out of the state to Indiana to seek to terminate the pregnancy and maybe save her life.

RASCOE: Some opponents of abortion rights questioned the story's veracity until a man was charged with the girl's rape in Ohio just a few days ago. Now the doctor who performed the abortion has come under attack from a top official in her state. Here to explain is Sarah McCammon, who covers reproductive rights for NPR. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: So tell us about this doctor.

MCCAMMON: Well, Dr. Caitlin Bernard is an OB-GYN and abortion provider in Indiana. And her story caught attention after she told The Indianapolis Star about providing care to the 10-year-old girl. She was right around six weeks pregnant when Ohio's trigger ban prohibiting nearly all abortions after about six weeks took effect in response to last month's Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Now, many prominent conservatives came after Dr. Bernard to question her credibility. And among them was Indiana's Republican attorney general, Todd Rokita. On Fox News, he suggested without providing evidence that Bernard had broken an Indiana law that requires doctors to report abortion procedures.

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TODD ROKITA: We have this abortion activist acting as a doctor with a history of failing to report. So we're gathering the information. We're gathering the evidence as we speak. And we're going to fight this to the end.

MCCAMMON: But in fact, NPR and other media outlets have obtained documentation that Dr. Bernard indeed filed the appropriate paperwork in this case. I have that report. It's dated July 2. She told the state she'd provided a medication abortion on June 30 for the 10-year-old abuse victim who was about six weeks pregnant. Meanwhile, the Indiana University Health System, where Dr. Bernard is employed, issued a statement on Friday saying they'd conducted a review into whether she'd violated any privacy laws and found her to be in full compliance.

RASCOE: And how is Dr. Bernard responding to all of this attention and these attacks that she's facing?

MCCAMMON: So far, she's communicating mostly through her spokespeople. But on Twitter, she said that, quote, "My heart breaks for all survivors of sexual assault and abuse. I am so sad that our country is failing them when they need us most." She also said she hopes to be able to tell her story soon. On Friday, through her attorney, Dr. Bernard sent a cease-and-desist letter to Indiana Attorney General Rokita, demanding that he, quote, "please cease and desist from making false and misleading statements" about her. The letter characterized his statements as defamatory and threatened legal action. And, Ayesha, I should say this is important because a spokeswoman has confirmed to NPR that Bernard had faced threats against her family in the past. And, of course, other abortion providers have faced violence and even been killed. So these statements are a safety concern for her.

RASCOE: Sarah, you just returned from a reporting trip in Texas. It's a state, like Ohio, with no abortion exception for rape or incest. What's the reaction to this there?

MCCAMMON: Right. I spent some time in the Houston area in the past few days interviewing folks who work for a couple of organizations that oppose abortion rights and also work to help pregnant women and new mothers with both material and emotional resources. One of them, Pam Whitehead, is executive director of a Christian organization called ProLove Ministries that counsels women against abortion. She told me that while this is a horrific situation and she believes the rapist should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, she also said that her opposition to abortion is absolute.

PAM WHITEHEAD: I think abortion should not be an option for anyone under any circumstances. So to answer your question, I think abortion should not be legal in any circumstances - so not just this circumstance.

RASCOE: So she doesn't support abortion even in the life of the mother?

MCCAMMON: She said she doesn't believe that's ever necessary. Of course, many, many medical experts would disagree and would say that it is sometimes necessary to terminate a pregnancy to preserve a woman's health or life. Interestingly, though, one of the women I spoke to in Texas at a maternity home run by Whitehead's organization told me she's very concerned about this. She said she herself did not want an abortion, and she's grateful for the help she's getting. But she couldn't understand how anyone could ask a 10-year-old girl to go through with a pregnancy or be a parent.

RASCOE: What does this case that we've been talking about tell us about the legal battlegrounds that are taking shape after Roe?

MCCAMMON: Well, there are battles taking place at every level of government over this issue. You see conflict between different state laws, different policies depending on where you live. We may see more attempts by Republican officials to go after abortion providers, for example. And we're seeing state and federal conflict, as well. This week, the Biden administration tried to clarify protections for health care providers, especially those who provide abortions or other reproductive health care in emergency situations. And in response to that, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration. So we are seeing officials who oppose abortion rights continuing to try in multiple ways to restrict it.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon, who covers reproductive rights. Thank you so much for joining us.

MCCAMMON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.