Content warning: This article includes discussion of violent threats of sexual assault.
After right-wing media seized on the story of a 10-year-old rape victim who was forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana for an abortion, fringe social media platforms like 4chan and Gettr have been flooded with hateful messages and threats against Caitlin Bernard, the Indiana-based doctor who provided the abortion.
Bernard was originally the single source for the IndyStar story, driving many to baselessly accuse her of fabricating it entirely. The story was later confirmed, but coverage targeting Bernard grew after Fox News’ Jesse Watters hosted Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita on his July 13 show, during which Rokita falsely accused Bernard of not reporting the rape to authorities. Bernard’s lawyer has since sent a cease-and-desist letter to Rokita, who also received a misconduct complaint filed by Lauren Robel, the former dean of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, arguing that Rokita intended to “harass and intimidate” abortion providers.
Right-wing media jumped on the accusation that Bernard did not report, and a barrage of hate toward Bernard followed. Many of these attacks have gone far beyond expressions of concern for the child and included violent threats against her. In trying to discredit Bernard, some have accused her of protecting the rapist and aiding child sex trafficking, claimed she is exploiting the child’s story for political or social gain, or attacked her for providing the abortion. There have also been calls for legal retaliation against her for speaking up.
Hate spread on fringe platforms
On July 11, right-wing Twitter troll Salty Cracker called on followers to “activate the chans” in response to their claim that “Dr. Caitlin Bernard pushed a rape hoax to further her baby killing operation.” Indeed, the white supremacist corners on internet message board 4chan were awash with death and rape threats against Bernard, with one user on the message board site 4chan saying that she “deserves to be raped to death.”
4chan, Gettr, and similar right-wing online spaces spread a variety of conspiracy theories about Bernard. One Gettr user accused Bernard of “lying to try and keep … abortion rights legal,” calling her “Satan’s disciple.”
On 4chan, multiple posts called Bernard an “abortion activist,” with one user calling Bernard a “turbo-deranged abortion activist” using the story as a “pr stunt,” proving that “you are not dealing with humans here but ghouls.”
Also on 4chan, a user claimed that Bernard “helped enable their scheme to cover up the rape of a 10 year old," and another said that “the Indiana abortionist was part of a conspiracy to cover up the abuse that happened in Ohio.”
A user on an online forum dedicated to Gamergate said that “this was some sort of Southern Mexico/Guatemala child bride situation,” which is “why the abortionist didn’t report it to the police until she was forced to; she was trying to protect the rapist while also using the rape for political gain.”
On Gettr, a user claimed that Bernard “covered up for trafficking the child across state lines AND didn’t report the rape bc the rapist is an illegal alien.” Other users on fringe platforms continued to say that this was an intentional cover-up.
Accusations against Bernard on fringe social media sites include even more extreme conspiracy theories. On Gettr a post claimed Bernard provided the “illegal abortion” without consent of the girl and the 10-year-old later died “at the hands of an illegal alien,” which is false. Another post stated, “Joe Biden had her Raped by illegal” and called the accused a “Joe Biden illegal.” One 4chan post claimed the “abortion doctor,” referring to Bernard, is “Hillary Clinton’s cousin.”
Right-wing media stoked these narratives
The violent rhetoric and death threats against Bernard seen on the fringe corners of the internet did not come out of nowhere. The first attacks on the health care provider came from right-wing media outlets, including Fox News, One America News, and other right-wing commentators.
After Rokita’s appearance on Jesse Watters Primetime, right-wing news coverage on Bernard expanded to criticize her based on the lie that she had failed to report the rape. Watters has been a central figure in spreading misinformation about the case. But among the first in right-wing media to push these smears was PJ Media’s Megan Fox, who endlessly questioned Bernard’s intentions. After her narrative fell apart, she pivoted, tweeting, “If I hadn’t brought up this poorly-sourced story, we would have never heard about this illegal alien rapist. You’re welcome.”
Over on daytime Fox, Outnumbered hosted contributor David Webb, who asked, “Why was she used as a political tool? Why was the doctor not acting on it? Why was she first a political tool?”
One America News’ Kara McKinney criticized Bernard for providing abortions at all on the July 14 edition of her show Tipping Point, ending her segment on the story by smearing her and other abortion providers as “baby killers.”
Echoing this, president of Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton quote-tweeted Caitlin Bernard, falsely claiming, “Abortion isn’t medical care, it is killing.”
Some right-wing figures used the false accusation that Bernard failed to report to argue that she, allegedly like other abortion providers, did so to protect the child’s rapist. On the July 14 edition of Newsmax’s John Bachman Now, anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson claimed that “most abortion facilities do not report rape. They are a safe haven for abusers. The fact that she, from what we can tell, was not one of the people that reported this is very, very common. They protect abusers. We see that over and over again. We’ve seen that in undercover footage.”
Babylon Bee Managing Editor Joel Berry wildly speculated that “if there is a doctor in his [Rokita’s] state who is aiding the trafficking and abuse of underage girls they need to be stopped.” He also shared a photo of Bernard and her phone number on the Indiana University School of Medicine’s website. One Twitter user responded to Berry, saying they “called and left a message” for Bernard, as “she has some explaining to do.” Calls for Bernard’s medical license to be revoked also spread on Twitter following Berry’s comments. The photo and phone number for Bernard have since been removed from her biography.
Women’s lives, including Bernard’s, are at stake
The danger created from publicly attacking abortion providers is very real, and Bernard herself has faced threats previously for her work. The Guardian reported on July 15 that Bernard is listed as a “Local Abortion Threat” on a website run by anti-abortion group Right to Life Michiana, and, in 2020, she testified that the FBI had warned Planned Parenthood, which then notified her, of a kidnapping threat made against her daughter. This then forced her to stop providing first-trimester abortions at a clinic in South Bend, Indiana.
Attacks discrediting Bernard’s intentions and her character recall the 2009 asassination of George Tiller, an abortion provider who was murdered while attending church with his family. In the weeks before his assasination, right-wing media — notably former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly — attacked Tiller numerous times, repeatedly calling him “Tiller the baby killer.” Rolling Stone wrote in 2017 that “O’Reilly had waged an unflagging war against Tiller that did just about everything short of urging his followers to murder him.”
Extreme rhetoric like this is dangerous when allowed to spread unchecked. The hate started by right-wing media figures has devolved into threats and calls to action by their audience which has, in the past, resulted in real world harm. As has happened before, comments calling abortion providers “baby killers” and arguing that they protect sexual abusers threaten their safety. The backlash against Bernard on social media and the violent threats found on fringe platforms are likely to deter other abortion providers from speaking out or practicing at all.