Abortion Rights Foes Use Indiana Fetal Remains Discovery for Political Gain

The Trump administration and anti-choice lawmakers are using the case of Ulrich Klopfer to attack abortion providers as dangerous and unregulated.

[Photo: A close-up of Dr. Klopfer listening during his licensing trial in 2014.]
While anti-choice groups have held up the Klopfer discovery as justification for stricter reporting laws, the results of onerous reporting requirements for abortion care clinics show Klopfer was an outlier. WANE 15 News / YouTube

Anti-choice organizations and lawmakers are using the finding of fetal remains at the home of deceased Indiana abortion provider Ulrich Klopfer to push for more unnecessary and onerous abortion restrictions.

Authorities found the remains last week at Klopfer’s Illinois home; he died September 3. Klopfer, whose medical license was suspended in 2016, had three clinics in Indiana that had closed. His family has said they don’t know why more than 2,000 medically preserved remains were kept in the late doctor’s garage. The remains were from abortions in Indiana in the early 2000s, the Associated Press reported. 

The Indiana and Illinois attorneys general have agreed to cooperate on an investigation; the White House and congressional Republicans have called for an investigation into the findings. 

Americans United for Life (AUL), a powerful anti-choice group, distributed talking points this week urging abortion rights foes to link Klopfer to state legislatures that have recently repealed abortion restrictions, and use the case to paint abortion care as unsafe and unregulated and conflating legal abortion with infanticide. 

Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, the only abortion clinic in South Bend, said anti-choice legislators and activists are using the Klopfer case to “try to smear all of us because of what appears to be substandard practices.” (Abortion rights opponents had done just that with rogue abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, who was roundly condemned by abortion providers and pro-choice activists.) 

Conservative media picked up the story on Klopfer, often citing a statement by White House spokesperson Judd Deere, who perpetuated the myth of infanticide, a common strategy employed by the Trump administration. 

Sharon Kann, abortion rights and reproductive health director at Media Matters for America, said the story is popular with right-wing media because it fits into conservatives’ narrative that abortion is dangerous and unregulated, despite the fact that it’s overwhelmingly safe and subject to medically unnecessary regulations. Research indicates that mortality rates for abortion are in the same range as dental procedures and lower than colonoscopies, procedures that don’t have special reporting requirements in Indiana.

“A lot of the ways these stories get told and the narratives the story are used in service of are not accurate depictions of abortion access and are, in fact, part of a larger strategy to make it more difficult to access safe abortions and to spread sensationalized inaccuracies about abortion access,” Kann said.

This dearth of access has led to more people from Indiana going to bordering Illinois for abortion services. According to federal government data, the number of Indiana residents who had an abortion in Illinois rose to 1,279 in 2015 from 474 in 2009, even as the total number of abortions declined in both states and in the nation as a whole during that time.

A recent National Abortion Federation report illustrates a consequence of pushing providers to the fringe: an increase in violence against clinics and providers. The data shows that 2018 set a new record for the number of violent acts, although some of the most serious acts, including arson and bombing, were higher in 1994. 

Miller said her South Bend clinic has been targeted with picketers, even on days when it wasn’t open.

Hostility to abortion rights is nothing new in Indiana, where the legislature is dominated by Republicans, and former Gov. Mike Pence (R) presided over a years long attack on abortion access. Ellyn Stecker, a retired doctor who practiced in the area for decades and has been vocal about reproductive health, described the environment in South Bend in a statement submitted on behalf of Whole Woman’s Health in its legal case against Indiana on the grounds it wrongly denied it a clinic license. 

“Stigma around abortion care is pervasive in South Bend,” Stecker said. “For example, there are billboards around town that try to shame patients for wanting or seeking an abortion. Anti-abortion protesters also regularly shouted at and harassed the staff and patients providing and seeking care at our local abortion clinic, which closed years ago.”

As Hagstrom Miller noted, that harassment continues today. Some anti-abortion leaders have spoken out about the news of the fetal remains in Indiana at memorials to fetal tissue, or used it to justify stricter reporting laws. But the results of onerous reporting requirements for abortion care clinics show Klopfer was an outlier. Anti-choice groups have long weaponized isolated incidents to attack clinics and abortion providers. 

A spokesperson for AUL told Rewire.News in an email that a law requiring the reporting mandates of fetal remains would have allowed state regulators to discover Klopfer was not disposing of them. However, in states that require additional licensing for abortion clinics, abortion rights opponents find small paperwork errors and misrepresent them as glaring safety violations. It’s the mandated burial or cremation, not the reporting requirements, that is of issue in this case for reproductive rights supporters. 

A Rewire.News investigation found that by requiring cremation or a burial, the laws created additional distress for some patients who had a miscarriage or chose abortion care.