The rollback of abortion rights promises to bring more conflict to campuses as administrators who pledge to support students and staff collide with local laws that restrict access to reproductive health care. One such scenario is playing out at Indiana University.
This episode started with horrific news. A doctor in Indiana had performed an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim. The child had traveled from Ohio, where state law prohibited her from obtaining an abortion.
Soon the story was everywhere. President Biden cited it in a speech. Right-wing pundits and The Wall Street Journal editorial board said it was “too good to confirm,” until The Columbus Dispatch confirmed it by reporting an arrest had been made. Indiana’s attorney general, Todd Rokita, began an investigation of the doctor, claiming without evidence that she did not report the abortion to the state, though 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 the Indiana University School of Medicine, a doctor trained in complex reproductive care, and an outspoken advocate for abortion access in Indiana.
Those roles have put her in direct conflict with the state’s Republican lawmakers, who are currently considering a bill that would make abortion a felony, except in cases of rape, incest, or if the pregnant patient risked “substantial permanent impairment.” The bill would give Indiana’s attorney general — currently the one investigating Bernard — the right to prosecute abortion cases if that person felt that local prosecutors were not doing the job.
IU faculty members expected their administration to make a strong showing of support for Bernard. Instead, many have felt the support has been late, lackluster, and nonspecific. On Monday, a petition circulated asking the president, Pamela Whitten, to speak out against the abortion bill and against efforts to intimidate faculty members like Bernard. By the afternoon, 161 faculty members, staff, alumni, and students had signed.
A July 27 statement by Whitten and the dean of the medical school, Jay Hess, said that Bernard “has always demonstrated sincere concern for the well-being of her patients and the education of her students. It’s what makes her a well-respected doctor, researcher, and educator, and a member of the faculty in good standing with IU School of Medicine.” In the Times, Whitten and Hess were quoted saying Bernard remains “a member of the faculty in good standing.”
In response to a request for comment, university spokesman directed The Chronicle to the July 27 statement.
Bernard, according to the Times story, has faced intense harassment. A colleague in the school, Tracey A. Wilkinson, wrote in the Times that a chilling effect has already taken hold: She had planned to write the op-ed with Bernard until news of Rokita’s investigation broke.
“I’m writing this essay myself — not only to bring attention to the chilling effect on medicine we’re seeing at this moment but also,” Wilkinson wrote, “because I’m terrified that I or any one of our colleagues could 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 bill and Rokita’s investigation of Bernard.
“We ask that you speak publicly against policies and practices, such as SB1, that deny all Hoosiers full reproductive rights and discriminate against half of the state’s population on the basis of sex,” the petition said. “And we ask that you just as publicly speak out against efforts to harass and intimidate faculty members, such as Dr. Bernard, who are bravely doing their jobs according to the professional norms for which any university must stand.”
The petition was created by Maria Bucur, a history professor at IU at Bloomington. Bucur teaches classes on gender, feminism, and sexual violence and said she worries that the administration will not firmly come to her defense when she speaks publicly about those issues.
“One of the things a president in a public university in a conservative state has to do is she has to thread the needle with the various audiences that she speaks to,” Bucur said. Those audiences include not only conservative boards and state lawmakers, but prospective and current students, staff, and faculty members, she said.
Sarah Bauerle Danzman, an associate professor of international studies, said the university needed to protect Bernard from the “politicized bullying” she was experiencing in order to keep faculty members.
“These kinds of draconian laws handicap us. It will make it harder for us to attract and retain top-tier graduate students and faculty that you need in order to be competitive for those grants,” she said, referring to money that may arise 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 it into law.
There was already tension between the faculty and Whitten — who started in 2021 amid questions about her selection — over graduate students’ efforts to unionize. In April, graduate students went on a four-week labor strike to protest the university’s refusal to recognize the union and to ask for better wages and job security, The Herald-Times reported. Many faculty members have signed letters urging the administration to recognize the union and, in an emergency all-faculty meeting in the spring, members voted overwhelmingly in support of the union effort.
“There’s a deep rift between faculty and this new administration,” said Benjamin Robinson, president of IU-Bloomington’s AAUP chapter and an associate professor of Germanic studies. “People don’t feel that there’s an actual dialogue.”
He noted that Whitten has never mentioned the unionization effort 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 provost and law school dean, who wrote a letter to the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission asking it to look into the state attorney general for his investigation of Bernard. Robel was a finalist for the IU presidency, according to the university’s general counsel at the time.