Rolling back abortion rights promises to spark more conflict on campuses as administrators promising to support students and staff clash with local laws restricting access to reproductive health care. One such scenario takes place at Indiana University.
This episode started with terrible news. A doctor in Indiana performed an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim. The child had traveled from Ohio, where state law prohibited her from having an abortion.
Soon the story was everywhere. President Biden quoted it in a speech. Right-wing experts and The Wall Street Journal editors said it was “too good to confirm,” until The Columbus Shipment confirmed it by reporting that an arrest had been made. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita started an investigation from the doctor, claiming with no evidence that she did not report the abortion to the state, although multiple newspapers have reported that she did.
Very little was publicly known about the doctor until last week when an article about her was published in The New York Times. She is Caitlin Bernard, an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Indiana University School of Medicine, a physician trained in complex reproductive care, and an outspoken advocate for abortion access in Indiana.
Those roles have brought her into direct conflict with state Republican lawmakers, who are currently considering a… account that would make abortion a crime, except in cases of rape, incest, or if the pregnant patient was at risk of “significant permanent harm.” The bill would give the Indiana attorney general — the one currently investigating Bernard — the right to prosecute abortion cases if that person felt local prosecutors weren’t doing the job.
IU faculty members expected their administration to strongly support Bernard. Instead, many have felt that the support was late, lackluster and non-specific. A petition circulated Monday asking the president, Pamela Whitten, to speak out against the abortion law and attempts to intimidate faculty members like Bernard. By noon, 161 teachers, staff, alumni and students had signed.
A Declaration of July 27 by Whitten and the dean of the medical school, Jay Hess, said Bernard has “always shown genuine concern for the well-being of her patients and the education of her students. That makes her a respected physician, researcher and educator, and a faculty member in good standing at the IU School of Medicine.” In the TimeWhitten and Hess were quoted as saying that Bernard remains “a faculty member in good standing”.
In response to a request for comment, a university spokesperson ordered: the chronicle to the statement of 27 July.
Bernard, according to the Time story, has faced intense harassment. A colleague at school, Tracey A. Wilkinson, wrote in the Time that a chilling effect has already taken place: she planned to write the op-ed with Bernard until the news of Rokita’s investigation broke.
“I’m writing this essay myself — not just to draw attention to the chilling effect on drugs we’re seeing right now, but also,” Wilkinson wrote, “because I’m terrified that I or one of our colleagues may soon face what Dr. Bernard is going through after delivering care to our patients.”
The faculty petition that circulated Monday expressed disappointment that the IU administration had not specifically spoken out against the abortion law and Rokita’s investigation into Bernard.
“We ask that you speak out publicly against policies and practices, such as SB1, which deny all Hoosiers full reproductive rights and discriminate against half of the state population on the basis of gender,” the petition reads. “And we ask that you speak out equally publicly against attempts to harass and intimidate faculty members, such as Dr. Bernard, who do their work bravely to the professional standards that every university should stand for.”
The petition was created by Maria Bucur, a history professor at the IU in Bloomington. Bucur teaches classes on gender, feminism and sexual violence and said she is concerned that the government will not defend her vigorously if she speaks publicly about these issues.
“One of the things a president of a public university in a conservative state has to do is thread the needle with the different audiences she speaks to,” Bucur said. Those audiences include not only conservative boards and state legislators, but also prospective and current students, staff and educators, she said.
Sarah Bauerle Danzman, an associate professor of international studies, said the university needed to protect Bernard from the “politicized bullying” she experienced in order to retain faculty members.
“These kinds of draconian laws hinder us. It will make it harder for us to attract and retain the first-rate graduate students and faculty you need to be competitive for those scholarships,” she said, referring to money that could come from the federal CHIPS and Science Act, which is intended to fund semiconductor manufacturing, research and development, Congress passed the $280 billion bill last week and Biden is expected to sign the bill.
There was already tension between the faculty and Whitten — who started in 2021 amid questions about her selection — over graduate students’ efforts to unite. In April, graduate students went on a four-week strike to protest the university’s refusal to recognize the union and demand better wages and job security. The Herald Times reported. Many faculty members have signed letters urging the administration to recognize the union, and at an emergency meeting of all faculties in the spring, members voted overwhelmingly in favor of the union’s efforts.
“There is a deep rift between the faculty and this new administration,” said Benjamin Robinson, chair of IU-Bloomington’s AAUP division and associate professor of Germanic studies. “People don’t feel like there’s any real dialogue.”
He noted that Whitten never mentioned the union efforts, nor Bernard or the impending abortion ban on her blog, Written by Whitten.
Robinson saw a contrast between Whitten’s statement about Bernard and that of Lauren Robel, a former IU at Bloomington’s provost and dean of law school, who wrote a letter to the Disciplinary Commission of the Indiana Supreme Court requesting the Attorney General of the state for his investigation of Bernardus. Robel was a finalist for the IU presidency, according to the university’s then general counsel.
Rokita’s office told the Indianapolis Business Journal that Robel’s complaint was ‘unfounded’. Rokita was still investigating Bernard, his office said Monday. .