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An Indiana Inquisition

The crime? Women’s reproductive health
A photograph of a rotund man's face (Indiana attorney general Todd Rokita)

The airy high corridors of the Indiana Government Center do not look anything like the dark rooms of seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, but the goings on in the conference rooms within might have you think otherwise. Last Thursday, May 25, they were the venue of what may as well have been a modern-day witch trial. On that day, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, a physician who performed an abortion on a ten-year-old rape survivor, was brought before the medical licensing board to respond to the charge that she had violated the girl’s privacy and the state’s child-abuse reporting laws and thus was unfit to practice medicine. Todd Rokita, Indiana’s ultra-conservative attorney general, had filed the complaint in 2022—quite obviously to punish Bernard, who had performed the procedure in the tiny window between the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and the passage of Indiana’s own ban. Rokita, a fixture of Indiana politics who has (like Mike Pence before him) made a near total abortion ban his political brand, was livid when he learned that Dr. Bernard had reported the case to the Ohio authorities. The child had traveled from Ohio, where an abortion ban was already in place. Going after Bernard’s license and accusing her of having violated the law was his retribution.  

As misogynist pols like Rokita have been emboldened by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, women’s reproductive rights are being systematically obliterated in the Midwestern states of post-Roe America. Here is a resurrected vision of female oppression that is terrifying to behold, and it was on full display at this attempt at license-snatching. Inside the hearing room, the medical board sat in a semi-circle, their solemn faces not betraying the fact that two of them had donated to Rokita’s campaign for attorney general, with one member’s contribution adding up to nearly $25,000. When all was said and done, after a nearly fifteen-hour hearing, Bernard did get to keep her license but was issued a fine of $3,000 for having violated the girl’s privacy by speaking of the case to a news reporter.

The purpose of the proceedings in Indiana was to make an example out of physicians like Dr. Bernard while also sating the familiar hunger of the evangelical right to keep fighting the abortion fight even in the post-Roe era. How did the hearing amount to anything other than legal harassment of a practicing doctor? The state had already interrogated Bernard in a November deposition, not long before she testified under oath during a preliminary injunction hearing. In her hearing before the medical board Bernard had refused to answer a question about whether she had a “coat-hanger” tattoo on her body. She had also refused to divulge the name of the Ohio physician who had referred the case to her. Not only was this reminiscent of the furtive search undertaken by the prosecutors of Salem for the “witch’s mark” on the body of the women they were targeting, it also bore alarming resemblance to the pressure they faced to name other “witches.” These likenesses did not bother Rokita’s deputy inquisitors at all—they burned up time making arguments that Bernard should be compelled to respond to the questions even if they had been deemed irrelevant.

The problem is not simply that Republican-controlled states want to find women to burn at the metaphorical stake but also that women’s rights groups in these states are finding it difficult if not impossible to hold them at bay. Over the Memorial Day weekend that immediately followed this macabre proceeding, as Americans were busy shooting each other from Chicago to Arizona, the case of an Ohio teenager emerged hinting at just the sort of thing that is happening as the Midwest becomes medieval in terms of reproductive rights. In Cleveland, a few hours’ drive away from Indianapolis where Dr. Bernard had faced losing her license on Thursday, the mother of a sixteen-year-old girl called the police to report that she had found two dead babies in the trash.

The problem is not simply that Republican states want to find women to burn at the metaphorical stake but that women’s rights groups in these states are finding it difficult to hold them at bay. 

The girl, who said she had not even known she had been pregnant until she went into labor, was arrested and charged. With Rokita-esque alacrity, prosecutors in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County slapped a panoply of charges on the child, including but not limited to two counts of involuntary manslaughter and gross abuse of a corpse. As if on cue, ultra-conservatives broke out in denunciations of the “mother” and the cruelty and callousness it would have taken to throw her babies in the trash.

This, then, is the landscape of women’s reproductive rights across vast swathes of the United States. Millions of women are now living under these oppressive realities. Moralistic wars on sex education that would educate girls about their sexual and reproductive health, bans on the abortion pill, bans on abortion itself, and the prosecution of health care providers who can no longer make their patient’s health their topmost priority have all contributed to the macabre and grim reality of now. It is not that teenagers unaware of their pregnancy or even what to do about their pregnancy did not exist prior to the galvanization of such a throttling of rights. Instead, it is that such actions when brought to light now point to a desperation, a lack of options that were available as recently as a year and a half ago.

The laws and sham trials will undoubtedly proliferate in the days to come. While they constitute the pressing reality of the moment—a seizure of women’s bodily autonomy not unlike the mandatory veiling decreed by an ayatollah or Taliban leader—there is also a sense of abandonment and helplessness. While pro-choice women are making efforts on the local level in some states to organize efforts to help women who need to leave their states to obtain abortions, these are for the most part piecemeal and location dependent. The hypothetical woman in need of an abortion in a red state has few resources to turn to; nor is it an easy matter determine if it would be possible to go to a blue state and obtain a procedure within the permissible limit. Could that be criminalized too? This is in stark contrast to pro-life and evangelical women whose networks, galvanized in no small part by the zeal to get Roe overturned, are robust and far more able to deploy members to assist women.

Then there is the silence at the international level. American exceptionalism—championed by male politicians just like Indiana attorney general Todd Rokita—mean that there are no international legal forums that American women can turn to in order to get an enforceable ruling against the draconian laws in red America. The ease with which brave women like Dr. Caitlin Bernard are made into examples, threatened with a loss of life and livelihood, only serves to further embolden those who want to use the legal system and government agencies as weapons. In the decaying rust belt cities of Indiana or Missouri or Ohio, young women are becoming mothers not out of choice but from a lack of options.

When qualified professional health care providers can be brought in front of tribunals that do not even bother with impartiality, and young girls are left to fend for themselves if they are pregnant, not only are other curbs on their way in practical terms, but women are also being told quite simply that their bodies do not belong to them in the way men’s bodies do to men. Being “good” and “law-abiding” is acquiescing to these norms or being pilloried before the world, as Dr. Bernard was last Thursday. Women’s bodies have always been the site of the politics of terror and control. The back and forth about whether a fully qualified medical professional has a tattoo of a coat hanger on her body—all of it entered into the official record of the proceedings—suggests that women’s rights in red America are at the whim of inquisitors like Todd Rokita.

In the messy mix of early pre-election politics, the reproductive rights issue is front and center, but a victory on that front does not necessarily suggest a reprieve in MAGA-dominated states where the most draconian bans have gone into effect. Even in the year since the overturning of Roe, it is painfully obvious that a grassroots feminist revival is needed—one that is not only focused on advocacy but also practical and reliable means of getting women the help that they need to terminate pregnancies. The only certainty available to red-state women in the United States is that they are alarmingly close to facing situations where they have no choice at all except to be forced into motherhood. Those who help them can look forward to being dragged before bodies that are far more concerned about locating tattoos and finding out the names of other women to persecute than they are about women’s basic human rights. They proclaim their love of freedom as they drag America toward a religion-inspired crackdown.