Before the story went viral and an Ohio man was charged with rape in a case that has captured international attention, Caitlin Bernard, an OB/GYN, was forced to stop providing abortion services at a clinic in South Bend, Ind., in 2020 after Planned Parenthood alerted her about a kidnapping threat made against the doctor’s daughter that was passed along by the FBI.
“I felt it would be best for me to limit my travel and exposure during that time,” Bernard said in sworn testimony last year, according to the Guardian, the first to report the news. “I was concerned that there may be people who would be able to identify me during that travel, as well as it’s a very small clinic without any privacy for the people who are driving in and out, and so therefore, people could directly see me.”
Kendra Barkoff Lamy, a spokesperson for Bernard, confirmed to The Washington Post on Saturday that “reports regarding threats against Dr. Bernard’s family in 2020 are sadly true.”
“These personal and dangerous threats are obviously devastating to her, a board-certified doctor who has dedicated her life to the betterment of women and providing crucial reproductive care, including abortions,” Lamy said in a statement. “Sadly, Dr. Bernard is not alone, and this happens to doctors like her who provide abortions across our nation.”
Neither officials with Planned Parenthood nor the FBI immediately responded to requests for comment early Saturday. Rebecca Gibron, the acting CEO of several Planned Parenthood branches, including in Indiana, said in a news release that the organization “has committed to providing Dr. Bernard with security services and assistance with legal fees.”
“We stand in solidarity with Dr. Bernard and all providers who continue to deliver compassionate, essential care to patients, even in the face of attacks from antiabortion extremists,” Gibron said.
Although the details surrounding the reported kidnapping threat remain unclear, Bernard has been labeled a “local abortion threat” on a website for Right to Life Michiana, an antiabortion group based in South Bend. Bernard is among six doctors who have had their workplace locations and educational backgrounds listed since at least last year on a section of the website called “Local Abortion Threat: The Abortionist.” Bernard and the other doctors were listed on the website as of Saturday.
Jackie Appleman, executive director of Right to Life Michiana, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday. Appleman told the Guardian earlier this year that listing Bernard and the other doctors on the group’s website was based on “publicly available information.”
“Right to Life Michiana does not condone or encourage harm, threats or harassment towards anyone, including abortion doctors, abortion business employees and escorts,” Appleman said in January. “We encourage pro-choice groups to also accept our nonviolent approach when it comes to the unborn.”
But Alison Case, an abortion provider in Indiana who is among the six doctors listed by the group, told The Post that Right to Life Michiana knows exactly what it’s doing by identifying doctors.
“What’s the point of putting out a list like that unless you’re encouraging people to take action against us?” said Case, 34, a family practice provider in Indianapolis. “It’s scary.”
Appleman has previously noted that Right to Life Michiana supports the criminalization of doctors who perform abortions. The group promotes misinformation about pregnancy and abortion on its website, including the false claim that medical abortions can be “reversed.” Right to Life Michiana touts several sponsors on its website, including the University of Notre Dame, which is in South Bend, and the organization is promoting a fall event with conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro as the keynote speaker.
But the antiabortion group is perhaps best known for a 2006 newspaper advertisement opposing “abortion on demand” that was signed by Barrett when she was a law professor at Notre Dame — an endorsement that appeared to be her first direct public expression regarding her views on abortion.
“We, the following citizens of Michiana, oppose abortion on demand and defend the right to life from fertilization to natural death,” St. Joseph County Right to Life, which was later renamed Right to Life Michiana, said in the advertisement published in the South Bend Tribune. “It’s time to put an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade and restore laws that protect the lives of unborn children.”
The group’s advocacy work came under broader scrutiny during Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation process in 2020 when it was revealed that she failed to disclose her participation in the ad.
A Supreme Court spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions sent to Barrett about whether she has an ongoing connection to the group and whether she supports its tactic of identifying local abortion providers as “threats” and publishing biographical information.
The story of the 10-year-old victim was first made public when Bernard told the Indianapolis Star in an article published July 1 that she had been called by a doctor in Ohio about a young patient who was six weeks and three days pregnant after being raped. The girl had to travel to Indiana for her procedure because abortions are now banned in Ohio after six weeks.
Although the account of the girl’s situation quickly gained international attention and was decried by President Biden, it was followed by a wave of skepticism from conservative politicians, pundits and media outlets that expressed doubts. (The Post also published a Fact Checker analysis that initially concluded the report about the girl was a “very difficult story to check.”)
Then, the Columbus Dispatch broke the news that Gershon Fuentes, 27, was charged Wednesday after he allegedly confessed to authorities that he had raped the 10-year-old on at least two occasions. Detective Jeffrey Huhn of the Columbus police department testified that the arrest was made after a referral from Franklin County Children Services, which had been in touch with the girl’s mother on June 22, according to video of the arraignment — two days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe. The girl had an abortion at an Indianapolis clinic on June 30, Huhn said.
If convicted of first-degree felony rape, Fuentes could face life in prison.
Almost immediately after Fuentes was charged, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita (R) questioned Bernard about whether she had reported the procedure to state officials. Rokita again raised doubts in a letter to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) this past week, saying that his office had requested, but not received, documentation from state agencies that the girl’s abortion had been properly reported by Bernard.
But records obtained by The Post on Thursday show that Bernard reported the minor’s abortion to the relevant state agencies before the legally mandated deadline to do so. The doctor’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Rokita on Friday, and said in a statement to news outlets that Bernard is “considering legal action against those who have smeared [her].”
“My client, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, took every appropriate and proper action in accordance with the law and both her medical and ethical training as a physician,” DeLaney said. “She followed all relevant policies, procedures, and regulations in this case, just as she does every day to provide the best possible care for her patients.”
News of the previous threat against Bernard’s daughter has cast a spotlight on potential violence and criminal incidents against providers and patients. Since 1977, there have been 11 murders, nearly 500 assaults, 42 bombings, 196 arsons, and thousands of criminal incidents directed at patients, providers and volunteers, according to the National Abortion Federation, which advocates for abortion access. According to its most recent threat assessment report released in May, last year saw a 600 percent increase in incidents of stalking abortion providers and a 163 percent increase in the delivery of hoax devices or suspicious packages compared with 2020.
Lamy told The Post on Saturday that Bernard is asking “for respect for her family’s privacy.” Bernard took to Twitter on Friday evening to express her gratitude for support during what she called “a difficult week,” and vowed to “continue to provide healthcare ethically, lovingly, and bravely each and every day.”
“I hope to be able to share my story soon,” Bernard said.
And thank you to the journalists who have worked tirelessly and diligently to inform the public about this important story and the truth. I hope to be able to share my story soon. 2/2
— Caitlin Bernard (@drcaitbernard) July 15, 2022
María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.