So often, moral shabbiness reveals itself most at moments of perceived triumph.
A few days ago, Dr. Caitlin Bernard and Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita each announced decisions not to appeal a punishment handed down by the Indiana State Medical Licensing Board.
The licensing board, at Rokita’s request, had reprimanded the doctor for supposedly violating the privacy rights of a 10-year-old Ohio girl who had become pregnant following a rape and came to Bernard for an abortion. The board also fined Bernard $3,000.
The board’s action earned—and merited—national and international scorn among medical and legal ethics experts.
The criticism focused on two areas.
The first was that the information Bernard had disclosed—the age of the patient, the medical procedure and the state where the patient resides—routinely can be found in medical journals and was well within accepted guidelines. Rokita himself had disclosed as much or more information about the little girl during his ceaseless attempts to attract attention from national right-wing media.
The second was that the licensing board is populated entirely with political appointees. These included board members who had made substantial campaign contributions to Rokita and yet chose not to recuse themselves.
When Bernard signaled that she was not going to appeal, she did so quietly, as if she were trying to turn the page on a sad chapter. Because of Rokita’s Javert-like persecution of her, both she and her family have received death threats.
Rokita, on the other hand, could not contain himself.
“We are not appealing because we won the case, and it’s not surprising Dr. Bernard is not appealing. The Medical Licensing Board found Dr. Bernard liable for violating state and federal patient privacy laws on three separate counts, penalized her with the maximum fine possible under the law, and issued a formal letter of reprimand. My team fought for the 10-year-old girl’s privacy rights and continues to do the same for other Hoosier patients,” crowed Rokita.
At no time did the attorney general acknowledge what he’d really “won.”
Thanks to his efforts, the reputation of the medical licensing board has been severely tarnished before a national audience, perhaps beyond restoration or repair. Rokita may not care about such matters—given that he has done much the same thing to the office of the Indiana attorney general—but the members of the board may.
They may continue to pay a price in terms of professional reputation long after Rokita has moved on to other, equally senseless fights.
He also has sent a signal to other doctors interested in practicing medicine dealing with reproductive challenges that Indiana is not a place likely to welcome them. His relentless campaign to hunt down and punish Bernard for something—anything—likely will make it more difficult for Hoosier women to receive the health care they need.
Then there’s the specific case itself.
Nothing Todd Rokita has done or will do has helped that 10-year-old rape survivor in any way.
His determination to use her tragedy to burnish his credentials as an anti-abortion crusader obscures the nature of what happened to her.
A much older man assaulted her. That act of violation and violence all by itself is enough trauma to last a lifetime.
But the rape also left the little girl pregnant.
Todd Rokita’s position was and is that this child should have been forced to carry another child to term. Regardless of the risk to her own health, this 10-year-old rape survivor should have been compelled by the power of the state to spend months reliving the assault on her body and soul.
Because he thinks in terms of opportunities and issues, our attorney general lost sight of what that might do to the little girl. While he battled to claim a trophy, he gave scant consideration to the little girl and the suffering she experienced.
Dr. Bernard, on the other hand, only saw a little girl who had experienced something horrible.
And the doctor chose to help that little girl.
Todd Rokita scored a political win the other day.
All he had to sacrifice to notch it was the reputation of a state board, quality health care for pregnant women in Indiana and a wounded little girl’s peace of mind.
He took a victory lap to celebrate.
Yes, moral shabbiness often reveals itself most at moments of perceived triumph.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College.