The Anti-Choice Agenda in Indiana? Full Speed Ahead

Although Mourdock didn't win a senate seat, that's small consolation for the women in the state who still need access to abortion and family planning services.

Like many of states on election day, voters in Indiana turned out ready to support women’s reproductive rights and autonomy. Unfortunately for those voters, their desires at the polls may have little effect on the attacks on women within the state itself.

A senate seat that was believed to be an easy pick up for the Republican party remained in Democratic hands after outrage over GOP candidate Richard Mourdock‘s statement that pregnancy from rape should be considered a gift from God. Senator Joe Donnelly, trailing behind prior to Mourdock’s “revelataion,” won a clear victory on November 6th as voters rejected Mourdock‘s extreme abortion views.

That rejection spread over into the Governor’s race, where Republican Congressman Mike Pence nearly lost his race to Democrat John Gregg, coming in at just below 50 percent of the vote to Gregg’s 46 percent in a three-way race (Libertarian candidate and former reality show star Rupert Bonham received the other 4 percent of the vote). Although the state voted overwhelmingly for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and increased the gap between Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature, the near-upset in the Governor’s race shows their unhappiness with the most radical of anti-choice politicians enforcing their extreme views on residents.

Despite his narrow victory, however, the new governor is unlikely to take the lesson to heart, although it may lessen the zeal with which he enacts his agenda. Pence, who lead the charge to defund Planned Parenthood nationally in Congress, is expected to continue that quest in Indiana, where Governor Mitch Daniels already started the ball rolling.  And as a leader in the movement to redefine rape at the national level and supporter of every anti-choice bill proposed in the House, there is little doubt that even if Pence doesn’t actively advocate for anti-choice legislation, he will enthusiastically sign it once it reaches his desk.

That the bills will be coming isn’t in doubt. The Republicans gained more seats in the state legislature, putting them so far up in numbers that legally the Democrats don’t even need to show up to the capital for bills to still be passed. Democrats had been using the “walkout” method to stop bills that were being pushed by the Republican majority by refusing to allow the legislature to have a quorum to do business. Now, that power is gone.

“There were some surprises in the election,” Betty Cockrum, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Indiana told RH RealityCheck. “But we still expect to see every piece of legislation proposed before come back again.”

Cockrum believes that the effort to try again to defund Planned Parenthood will be the first priority of the legislature, and that despite saying he would focus on jobs and the economy, Pence will be ready to make that happen.

The surprise victory of the Democratic candidate for state superintendent was seen to be a rebuke to attempts to change education policy in Indiana, but sadly, there was no parallel victory for women’s health. Despite the loss of Mourdock and the near loss of Pence, anti-choice activists and politicians are already preparing to legislate away women’s reproductive rights.

Indiana Right to Life is already planning their blueprint for legislative action in 2013, and unsurprisingly an attempt to restrict the availability of medication abortion is a high priority. Acting off of their complaint earlier this year that the Lafayette, Indiana Planned Parenthood clinic isn’t following proper licensing rules because they only offer medication abortion, not surgical procedures, the group appears ready to use the incident as an excuse to write a new bill that could make RU-486 difficult—if not impossible—to obtain in the state at all. It has happened in other states and will be a priority wherever anti-choice activists have control of most of the state government, if the model legislation surrounding it is any indication.

“That’s something that I think our lawmakers are interested in,” Sue Swayze, Indiana Right to Life legislative director told WBAA News reporter Mike Loizzo. “This is a new frontier of the abortion industry.”

It’s a frontier that Pence may not be willing to explore on his own. When he campaigned for governor with his “Roadmap for Indiana,” he stayed far away from the social issues that many had come to identify with him as a religious-right congressman. Although he accepted the previous governor’s stance to refuse to implement Obamacare, he did not set Daniels’ quest to defund Planned Parenthood into his blueprint, and even emphasized the problem that unintended pregnancies have become in the state.

Like the rest of the country, Indiana has seen an explosion in the past generation of births to unmarried mothers, whose children will be statistically much more likely to end up poor and prone to a number of social and educational dysfunctions. Today, 41.5 percent of births to women over 18 in Indiana are to unmarried mothers. The unmarried birth rate problem is no longer primarily a matter of teen pregnancies, as it was back in days before welfare reform. Instead, unmarried mothers today are more likely to be in their 20s. Why does this matter? A large body of social science research has shown that children born to unmarried mothers are also much more likely to drop out of high school and to be out of work.

Pence stated that if elected, he would promote a “family impact statement” on any piece of legislation that would force legislators to study how the bill would “promote families, increase family budgets and respect a parent’s right to raise their children,” among other potential affects. He also said that he would focus specifically on the economic issues he campaigned on, not the social issues that seem to have driven so many state legislators who are supported by Indiana Right to Life.

If Pence is really intent on keeping his campaign promises, improving — not limiting — reproductive care access should be a priority. After all, it encompasses every economic measure in the state, from healthier families to improved access in schools, a better business climate and workforce and better graduation rates.

It’s that message that many reproductive rights advocates in the state are hoping to hone in on during the 2013 legislative session, as they try to proactively beat the bills they know will come up for a vote. Sue Ellen Braunlin of the Indiana Religious Coalition in Support of Reproductive Justice says that it is this aggressive stance that she and her allies will assume when it comes to new bills, rather than the more cautious approach they took when Daniels was in office.

“We treaded more cautiously with Daniels [during the defunding of Planned Parenthood], not wanting to make it so partisan so he could maybe veto that bill when it came through,” Braunlin told RH RealityCheck. “A lot of us thought he really would. I think he might have if he weren’t considering running for president.”

While Daniels was trying to woo over the ultra right-wing for a potential presidential run, Pence, by nearly losing the governor’s race, more likely needs to present a moderate stance if he wants to appeal to both a statewide and a national audience. Advocates of reproductive rights believe that this will be the key to keeping the most onerous bills at bay. “There is solid support for being more bold, for having a voice that is more independent, heavier on values language and making a much more solid pushback on legislation, and that we have business leaders’ backing,” said Brailin.

Of course, a veto by Pence means very little when the legislature is so solidly Republican that they can easily overturn it. Yet by appealing to more reasonable leaders who are sensitive to the public’s opinion of restrictive ultra conservative social legislation, such as Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, Braulin and her fellow activists believe they see a path to blocking bills.  They also hope to release their own “family impact statements” on legislation that they believe is harmful to families, with realities that the most rabidly anti-choice politicians choose to ignore.

In fact, Braulin sees the 2012 election as a positive change for the state, even with the legislature and the governor’s mansion still being dominated by anti-choice factions. “Despite the super majorities, I see that Indiana has a limit. Last year we didn’t know if Indiana had a limit, but with this election it is clear, especially with the solid rejection of Mourdock. Indiana was always a ‘leans right’ state, not a ‘far right’ state. I don’t think deep down Indiana is far far right.”

“We’re right, but I think there’s a limit to it,” said Braulin. “Last session felt like a free for all. This year, there are Republicans who will push to make sure things don’t get out of hand.”