Some three hours into the 14-hour inquisition of Dr. Caitlin Bernard before the Indiana physician’s licensing board, the assistant attorney general asked her an odd question: “Do you have a tattoo of a coat hanger that says, ‘Trust women,’ on your body?”
It was hard to tell which part offended him more: the coat hanger or “trust women.”
Bernard’s attorney objected to the question as irrelevant. And legally speaking, it was. For the record, Bernard does have such a tattoo, on her left foot, inked years ago to remind her of life in the bad old days. She is not ashamed of it.
But the question was certainly not an opening for the doctor to express pride in her profession and her advocacy of reproductive health care. It was not meant to seek information. Nor was the query a misstep. The interrogator, Cory Voight, was on a mission to prove this respected OB-GYN unfit to practice medicine.
But, it seemed, even that was not enough. As the surrogate for his boss, the fiercely anti-abortion Indiana state Attorney General Todd Rokita, Voight wanted to tear the defendant down emotionally and in the eyes of the public. Asking a woman in a professional hearing about a mark on her body — using the word “body” — was part of a larger strategy, one long deployed by anti-abortion forces against abortion-seekers. Now they’re using it against providers and advocates as well. The strategy is humiliation.
Bernard’s trial, at the May 25 meeting of Indiana’s physician’s licensing board, was the latest chapter in Rokita’s yearlong smear campaign. In June 2022, just after the Dobbs decision triggered the misnamed “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban in Ohio, Bernard performed an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim from that state. She told a local reporter the girl’s age, gestational stage, and state of origin, not her name or any other identifying details. She spoke again at a reproductive rights rally, warning that thousands of Indianans, including children, would be subject to similar, unnecessary trauma should the state pass an abortion ban in an upcoming special session. The case became national news. Bernard was celebrated as a hero.
Rokita was apoplectic. First, he circulated the calumny that Bernard had invented the patient. When it turned out the patient existed and a suspected perpetrator was arrested, Rokita cast around for laws Bernard might have broken. He came up with another false allegation — that she’d violated patient privacy and reporting laws — and petitioned the board to revoke her license. To do the job, Rokita sent the slimy-mouthed Voight. During the trial, many of his questions began, “Isn’t it true that …”
In another volley of questions, attempting to show that Bernard used the rape victim as a political tool, Voight declared, “No physician has been as brazen in pursuit of their own agenda.” “Brazen” is another one of those words, evoking “brazen hussy.” “She is unfit to practice medicine.” Morally unfit, that is.
Bernard is tough. She has withstood years of harassment and threats of violence against both her and her family. But several times during the hours of insinuation about her allegedly selfish, rash, and illegal conduct, the doctor was reduced to tears.
The IndyStar called the trial “persecution not prosecution.” After leading questions from a board member about the mushrooming media attention, including national news in which the alleged rapist’s identity and address were revealed, Bernard allowed that it might have been wise to describe her patient more elliptically — a sort of forced confession that she’d inadvertently harmed the child.
In the end, the board did not defrock the doctor. It did, however, find Bernard in violation of patient privacy laws and fined her $3,000 — permanent stains on her record. Arguably, her ordeal burnished her esteem among physicians, who decried her censure. Rokita did not break her.
But the champions of forced motherhood scored a point. The principled, trusted, and nationally respected Bernard was humiliated.
In 2020, Alabama abortion doctor Leah Torres was also punished by that state’s medical board for speaking out. In a moment of frustration two years earlier, asked by yet another troll if she heard the fetuses screaming when she aborted them, Torres sent off an angry tweet. Fired from a job in Utah, she had been invited to join the staff at the West Alabama Women’s Center, the only abortion provider for hundreds of miles around. Not two weeks into her employment, the state board charged her with lying on her medical license application about everything from her mental health to her intention to treat Covid-19 patients. She was also accused of making “public statements related to the practice of medicine which violate the high standards of honesty, diligence, prudence, and ethical integrity demanded from physicians licensed to practice in Alabama” — most likely a reference to the 2018 tweet.
“I felt like a child being reprimanded.”
In an unusual move, the state suspended Torres’s license during the investigation and through the end of the hearing. Seven months of earning nothing while incurring thousands of dollars in legal debt.
The committee that reviewed the board’s allegations did not concur with them. Nevertheless, they found that parts of Torres’s application “were suggestive of deceptive answers and a lack of ethical integrity.” She was required to take an ethics course and pay $4,000 in administrative fees to the board. Like Bernard’s, Torres’s reputation was tarred.
Also like Bernard, Torres was publicly humiliated. When investigators first came to her office to deliver the charges, they left with her physical license. “I felt like a child being reprimanded,” Torres told The Guardian.
Sometimes it appears that people in power are making their petitioners grovel simply because they can. Such nastiness was on display in May at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, during oral arguments regarding the case in which federal District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s ruled that the Food and Drug Administration had wrongly approved mifepristone more than 20 years ago, raising the prospect of the abortion drug’s removal from the market nationally.
After a series of weird conjectures and uninformed queries, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod set upon Jessica Ellsworth, attorney for drug distributor Danco Laboratories, for perceived rudeness in the company’s brief. Introducing the scolding session with her opinion that the filings contained “rather unusual remarks” that “we don’t normally see from very esteemed counsel,” Elrod proceeded to quote from the brief: “defied longstanding precedent,” “an unprecedented judicial assault,” “the court’s relentless one-sided narrative.” She went on.
Might the authors have been “under a rush,” perhaps “exhausted from this whole process,” the judge asked in sweetly assaultive tones. Did counsel “want to say anything about that?”
Ellsworth defended the language as reflecting the extraordinarily politicized nature of the ruling. Elrod persisted, offering alternative, politer phrasing. “Do you think it’s appropriate to attack the district court personally?” she prompted. “I wanted to give you a chance to comment on that.”
It was not an attack on the judge, Ellsworth replied. It was a critique of the court, the decision. But Elrod would not let up, and finally, the lawyer submitted. “I certainly think with more time, we may have ratcheted down some of that,” she said.
Penitence extracted from the prideful child, Judge James Ho took over with his own recital of sins, this time the FDA’s.
As both the method and the goal of misogynists, racists, abusers, tyrants, torturers, and the systems that uphold their power, humiliation can be its own reward. But it is not merely a social tool, and it does not act alone. Humiliation, along with shame and fear, are produced by and in turn fortify the laws that intrude on intimate life, control bodies, and punish those who resist. Together, restrictive laws and destructive emotions create the disciplinary environment that the right’s culture warriors have prayed and labored toward for decades.
Laws abridging bodily autonomy — bathroom patrols and genital inspections of student athletes, compulsory sonograms and lectures intended to get abortion patients to change their minds — intentionally humiliate their subjects, and always have. People seeking legal abortions in pre-Roe America, for instance, were required to seek approval from a (usually all-male) hospital board. Often, the winning plea was one of mental instability or suicidality — that is, self-incriminating evidence of the pregnant woman’s unfitness to mother.
Now activist public servants like Rokita and the members of politically appointed medical boards can turn to legislators to give their personal vendettas the force of law. Abortion remains legal in Indiana while a near-total ban is enjoined pending legal resolution, but confusion and fear about the law have reduced the number of abortions there precipitously. Alabama defines abortion as a Class A felony, carrying penalties of up to 99 years. West Alabama Women’s Center now provides comprehensive reproductive care, minus abortion, to low-income clients. Its staff is demoralized, and the clinic is struggling to stay afloat.
How do you fight an emotion? One way is to turn it around on its evokers.
A group of abortion rights comedians called Abortion Access Front have been staging political theater aimed at puncturing the confidence of the men legislating things they know nothing about: notably, women’s bodies. Their “Send in the Gowns” campaign encourages women to leave voicemails with as many gynecological details as possible, addressing the lawmakers as what they pretend to be. “Hi. Hello. This message is for Dr. Nutt,” begins Beth Stelling, calling South Carolina state Republican Rep. Roger Nutt. “I am lucky enough to have a womb [but] I do need advice because I don’t want to go to prison!” Her voice is both cheerful and earnest. “So the person I was making out with can’t stay hard with a condom, and it’s like, if I consent to the raw-dog activity and I get pregnant — I’m not on birth control, by the way, because it gave me anxiety, depression, dark patches of skin on my face …” In Tennessee, Abortion Access Front activists showed up at statehouse offices for medical “appointments” in hospital gowns.
In Florida, defenders of reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights have taken to tossing large, white, women’s panties emblazoned with political messages — “pantygrams” — at those responsible for the excrement issuing from the state’s legislative body. One such missive missile, launched by Bonnie Patterson-James at a May protest, landed near a county sheriff, who claimed it bounced and hit him on the leg. Patterson-James was arrested and charged with felony battery of a law enforcement officer. She was also among the protesters who panty-pelted legislators from the gallery of the Florida House while they debated the bill banning gender-affirming care. Weeks after the event, several participants were arrested; Guerdy Remy, a nurse who has run for local office, turned herself in and was cuffed, booked, and locked up in county jail before being released on $500 bail six hours later.
The arrests were part of Florida’s crackdown on dissent, particularly at the Capitol, which accounted for over 30 arrests during the 60-day legislative session. “They’re arresting them for tossing panties,” commented a spokesperson for the Florida Freedom to Read Project. “Seems Ron DeSantis and his administration are the ones who have gotten their panties in a twist.”
One of the demonstrators told the Orlando Sentinel that the arrests were payback for embarrassing the governor and the legislature — and a sign of the action’s success. Embarrassment may seem a weak rejoinder to systematic humiliation. But it’s a form of refusal to kneel — and that is the only way to pull the powerful down from on high.