IN Brief

Holcomb defends state decision to reject Indiana Torchbearer Award for Dr. Caitlin Bernard

By: - August 15, 2023 3:05 pm

Dr. Caitlin Bernard waits for a question from the Attorney General’s Office at a medical licensing hearing on May 25, 2023. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb on Tuesday defended the state’s decision to reject a recommendation to name Indianapolis OB-GYN Dr. Caitlin Bernard a winner of the Torchbearer Award — considered to be the most prestigious recognition of Hoosier women.

The Indianapolis Star first reported Tuesday that the rejection happened behind closed doors and with no explanation given to the judges who had unanimously selected her.

The Indiana Civil Rights Commission told the Star Bernard was rejected because of her case before the state Medical Licensing Board, which resulted in a reprimand. Holcomb gave a similar explanation to reporters.

“The recommendation is consistent with the process that — if an applicant is involved in a legal proceeding — then maybe it’s not the appropriate time for that individual,” Holcomb said. “But there may be a time in the future, but not currently. So, it follows the exact process that we always have.”

When asked if he thought Bernard was deserving of the award, Holcomb said “there will be a time to make that decision.”

“But it won’t be right now,” he said, also disputing the characterization that his office interfered in the case. 

The Torchbearer Awards are bestowed annually upon Indiana women who make a difference in their communities. The Indiana Commission for Women describes recipients as those “who are pioneers in their industries or throughout their life, faced tough choices or obstacles, demonstrated character, made significant contributions to their communities, stepped forward as leaders by breaking down barriers, and made lasting legacies.”

The commission additionally said Torchbearer Award winners are women who “have become true beacons of light and their stories of courage, perseverance, and compassion create a legacy and inspiration for all.”

Holcomb says legal saga precluded Bernard

The council of judges who selected Bernard were all former Torchbearers themselves and described Bernard as a woman who took a stand for reproductive health care while withstanding threats, national vitriol and state persecution, according to The Indianapolis Star. 

Holcomb, however, pointed to a legal saga surrounding the doctor, who last year oversaw a medication abortion for a 10-year-old girl from Ohio. A complaint against the doctor was filed by Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita in November. 

The case garnered nationwide attention and has drawn fear from health care practitioners and advocates who say it could have a chilling effect for abortion care providers.

The state sought a suspension of Bernard’s medical license. Rokita maintained that Bernard “failed to immediately report the abuse and rape of a child to Indiana authorities” after performing the girl’s abortion. His office also argued that Bernard “failed to uphold legal and Hippocratic responsibilities” by “exploiting a child’s traumatic medical story to the press for her own interests.”

In May, the board determined Bernard had violated state and federal patient privacy laws when she publicly discussed the 10-year-old rape victim’s case but upheld her actions in terms of reporting.

Ultimately, the doctor was given a reprimand and fined $3,000.

The board declined to take action affecting Bernard’s ability to practice, though. Before the decision, she had never been disciplined by the licensing board.

Bernard and the Attorney General’s Office still have about two weeks to appeal the decision to the Marion County Superior Court.


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.