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Indiana doctor sues AG to block him from obtaining patient abortion records

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, pictured here in 2016, is facing a lawsuit from Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an abortion provider seeking to stop him from issuing subpoenas for her patients' records.
Darron Cummings
/
AP
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, pictured here in 2016, is facing a lawsuit from Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an abortion provider seeking to stop him from issuing subpoenas for her patients' records.

An Indiana abortion providerwho came under attack by the state attorney general has filed a lawsuit to block him from subpoenaing her patients' medical records – including those of a 10-year-old rape victim she treated.

In the lawsuit, Dr. Caitlin Bernard and her medical partner claim that state Attorney General Todd Rokita has been issuing subpoenas to healthcare facilities for some of their patients' records, based on complaints from people who are not their patients and may live out of state. Rokita "took the additional step of issuing sweepingly broad document subpoenas to a hospital system ... for 'the entire medical file' of the patient discussed in the news stories," according to the suit filed Thursday in Marion County, Ind.

After Bernard spoke out publicly in July about providing an abortion to a young rape victim who was denied the procedure because of an abortion ban in her home state of Ohio, Rokita suggested on Fox News, without providing evidence, that Bernard had failed to follow state reporting laws.

Indiana health officials later released documents confirming Bernard had submitted the proper paperwork. Rokita nonetheless promised to launch an investigation.

Bernard's attorney, Kathleen Delaney, said in an interview with NPR on Wednesday that she's concerned about the impact of Rokita's actions on doctors and their patients.

"I'm concerned that the real purpose behind these actions might very well be, in my opinion, an effort to intimidate physicians who provide abortion care and patients who seek that care," she said.

After Rokita's public statements about her, Bernard said she faced harassment and threats. Her attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter to Rokita in July, warning that he could face a defamation suit if he continued to publicly question her professional behavior without evidence.

Delaney said Bernard has not ruled out filing a defamation suit, but that she believes the situation involving patient records requires "urgent" attention because it is putting patients' private health information at risk.

"It's shocking to me that the attorney general is seeking access to the most personal and private healthcare records imaginable," Delaney said. "And it's hard for me to understand any legitimate purpose behind such a request when there's been absolutely no allegation that the care that was provided by my clients was in any way substandard."

Rokita spokeswoman Kelly Stevenson issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying the Attorney General's Office followed procedure.

"By statutory obligation, we investigate thousands of potential licensing, privacy, and other violations a year," the statement said. "A majority of the complaints we receive are, in fact, from nonpatients. Any investigations that arise as a result of potential violations are handled in a uniform manner and narrowly focused.

"We will discuss this particular matter further through the judicial filings we make."

Bernard's suit suggests Rokita is using the state's consumer complaint process as a pretext to investigate Bernard and her colleague. According to the filing, Rokita's subpoenas were issued in response to complaints mostly from people who reside out of state and have never been her patients, and who complained after seeing news reports about Bernard.

The suit asks the court to issue an injunction against Rokita, arguing that otherwise, "Defendants will continue to unlawfully harass physicians and patients who are engaged in completely legal conduct and even though neither the physicians nor patients have any complaints about their relationship."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.