Right-wing media outlets are continuing to target an Indiana doctor who performed an abortion on a 10-year-old rape survivor from Ohio, even after all of their original attacks were thoroughly debunked. One of the rising conspiracy theories is that the OB-GYN, Caitlin Bernard, purposefully misreported the alleged perpetrator’s age on a mandatory filing form, listing him as a minor. The unstated but unmistakable insinuation is that she did this to protect or shield him from law enforcement. There is no evidence for this whatsoever, yet it has taken hold across conservative digital and broadcast media outlets.
Bernard has been subjected to a harassment campaign by right-wing outlets — and some in the mainstream media — since telling the Indy Star on July 1 that the 10-year-old pregnant child was forced to cross state lines to get an abortion following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Conservative writer at PJMedia Megan Fox and others questioned the validity of the reporting, a narrative which was picked up by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, Fox News, and other conservative outlets. The facts initially reported by the Indy Star were later confirmed by the Columbus Dispatch.
The new line of attack is based on a minor discrepancy in the official paperwork that Bernard filed regarding the assault. After days of conservative media claiming that Bernard hadn’t followed the state guidelines in altering the authorities of the rape, the Indy Star reported on July 14 that Bernard had in fact followed all the proper procedures. In that same report, the Star included this information about the filings:
The form indicates the doctor did not know the age of the "father." In such cases, doctors are required to enter an "approximate age," according to a person familiar with the electronic filing system. Bernard entered "17."
Later that day, Fox News digital published similar information, but framed it in a much more inflammatory way:
The Guatemalan illegal immigrant charged with raping and impregnating an Ohio 10-year-old who traveled to Indiana for an abortion was listed as a minor in the report the Indiana-based abortionist sent to authorities.
There is simply nothing nefarious or unusual about a healthcare provider not having immediate, exact details about an alleged crime committed against one of their patients. This lack of early information – Bernard filed the forms two days after she performed the abortion – becomes even more understandable considering that the victim is a traumatized child. The alleged perpetrator is believed to be in the country without authorization, which could have added further complications to determining his age. Immigrant victims and their families often fear investigation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, regardless of their own status, potentially adding another layer of difficulty. Healthcare providers are not investigators, and these forms are – by definition – the beginning of an investigation rather than a conclusion.
Still, in the hours and days after the Fox News story was published, right-wing media began speculating about the new information, inventing motives and using innuendo to suggest Bernard was up to something nefarious – namely, protecting the alleged perpetrator.
At Newsmax, host Chris Salcedo and Daily Caller reporter Brianna Lyman both insinuated that there was something suspicious about Bernard’s filings.
“Dr. Caitlin Bernard wrote the rapist was approximately 17 years old in a filing to Indiana's Department of Health. The accused rapist is 27 years old,” Salcedo said. “Gee, it would kind of be kind of an important detail. Don't you think?”
“The rabid, pro-abortion doctor here reported that the 27-year-old was a minor. The question is, Brianna, why would they do these things?” Salcedo then asked.
“We still have a lot of questions about this 10-year-old girl’s story,” Lyman echoed. “Why is he listed as 17 when he's 27?”
“The doctor who performed the abortion on the child appears to have listed Fuentes' age as 17,” wrote Townhall’s Matt Vespa. “She's only off by a decade. What's she hiding?”
Fox, the PJMedia writer who was central in manufacturing the outrage, also made it out to be something sinister. “Someone isn’t telling the truth,” Fox wrote. “How did that number get on that form and why?”
Conservative website Townhall mentioned the discrepancy in two posts by different writers, each hinting at a cover-up. “Even if Dr. Bernard truly did not know Fuentes' age, it's curious that she entered an age where he would also be a minor,” Rebecca Downs speculated. Her colleague Nick Arama sounded a similar note: “So why is his age reflected as a minor, and who was behind this?”
At Twitchy, Sam Janney wrote that Bernard “looks to have lied about the age of the alleged rapist on her report” and added, “Why would she lie about his age?” The headline of the piece framed the news as “shady.”
Other outlets were less overt in their conspiratorial thinking, but the intent behind their innuendo is unmistakable.
“It is unclear why Fuentes’s age was misrepresented by Bernard,” John Binder wrote at Breitbart.
“The Indiana doctor who performed an abortion on a 10-year-old girl from Ohio misreported the rapist as a minor,” wrote Ashe Schow at The Daily Wire.
Conservative media pushed other baseless attempted smears as well. Several highlighted that Bernard appears to have filed her report on the day after the initial Indy Star story was published, suggesting that the doctor was more interested in publicity than the child’s safety.
The Daily Wire wrote an ambiguous headline that read, in part: “10-Year-Old’s Abortion Doc Reported Rape After Media Queries.” The body copy made clear, however, that the outlet was referring to Bernard’s contact with the Star – not the conservative backlash. “Dr. Caitlin Bernard filed a report with the Indiana Department of Health on July 2, the day after the Indianapolis Star reported her story about performing an abortion on a young girl who allegedly had to travel to Indiana due to Ohio abortion laws,” Schow wrote. The clear insinuation was that Bernard prioritized speaking with the media over filing the required paperwork.
Janney, at Twitchy, was more overtly conspiratorial: “Why would she call the media first?”
Many conservative outlets also used a Telemundo interview with the mother of the victim to sensationalize the story of the family, rather than focus on the cruel anti-abortion policies that made the child’s travel necessary.
All of these attacks are retrofitted attempts to manufacture a conspiracy where there isn’t one, distracting from the very real tragedy at the heart of this case. They’re also part of a decades-long intimidation and violence campaign against abortion providers that will likely intensify in the coming months and years. Even prior to this round of attacks, Bernard had been subjected to kidnapping threats against her daughter in 2020.
The danger is not just from the media or right-wing activists either. A new complaint from the former dean of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law alleges that Indiana’s Attorney General intended to “harass and intimidate” abortion providers, following disparaging comments he made on Fox News about Bernard.
In the weeks since the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, many pregnant people and providers have come forward with horror stories about what they’ve been forced to go through. That’s the real story, and conservatives are desperate to bury it.