Reproductive Rights Are at Stake in Indiana’s Tight Gubernatorial Race

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Analysis Politics

Reproductive Rights Are at Stake in Indiana’s Tight Gubernatorial Race

Ally Boguhn

The Midwestern state's governor's contest is between two candidates who say they are "pro-life," and reproductive rights advocates are wondering how closely either will follow in the footsteps of former Gov. Mike Pence.

With Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who has spent years using his office to push his anti-choice views, having fled the Indiana gubernatorial election to join nominee Donald Trump atop his ticket, the race to fill his seat in the state’s top spot is more important than ever—especially since the state’s close contest for a new governor features both a Democrat and a Republican who say they are “pro-life,” but seem to differ on how that would affect their respective administrations.

During Tuesday night’s final gubernatorial debate in Evansville, Indiana, Democratic candidate and former state Rep. John Gregg and Republican Lt Gov. Eric Holcomb were forced to clarify their positions on reproductive rights after fielding a question about their “position on abortion and birth control” and the state’s HB 1337, an omnibus anti-choice measure signed into law by Gov. Pence and later blocked by a court that, among other things, criminalized abortion procedures based on the race, sex, or apparent ability of a fetus.

“I have always been and consider myself a pro-life Democrat,” said Gregg in response. “With that said, I do not believe it’s my business to interject myself in issues between a woman and her physician. I don’t believe legislators should be practicing medicine.”

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He continued that he has “always supported the funding of Planned Parenthood, even though personally being opposed to abortion because the truth of the matter is all of the money that they get from taxpayers goes to provide birth control, and health screenings, and cutting down on STDs, and mammograms.”

He criticized HB 1337, and said he would have vetoed it had it landed on his desk as governor, noting that it interfered with state universities’ ability to conduct medical research.

Holcomb took a decidedly different approach to what he declared to be his “pro-life” values, instead promising to work with state lawmakers to help craft anti-choice legislation, though he did not specify how.

“I don’t believe that I personally have the right to take another innocent life,” the lieutenant governor told the crowd. He noted that while his agenda would focus on other issues besides reproductive rights, “if legislation like [HB 1337] does come down the pike and make its way to my desk I will be working with those legislators long before it arrives so that hopefully we can avoid any misimpressions that may have occurred along the way.”

Polls of voters in the state show a tight race between the two major-party candidates. A Monmouth University Polling Institute poll released in mid-October had Gregg with a 12-point lead. Earlier in the month, another poll from WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana gave Gregg a less commanding lead of 41 percent to Holcomb’s 39 percent, down from a 15-point lead in September.

But in a state where the current governor has made it a priority to restrict abortion access, how might a Democrat who is personally opposed to abortion handle the issue should he be elected? Though Gregg’s previous statements on abortion and Planned Parenthood do seem to align with what he said during Tuesday night’s debate, his stances on a plethora of issues related to reproductive rights are more unclear.

A September article published by IndyStar said Gregg, the former Indiana House Speaker, “says he’ll veto any abortion restrictions that reach his desk as governor” and had called the state’s abortion ban based on gender or disability “extremism run amok.”

“I am pro-life and you can be pro-life like other people were and vote against that bill,” he said, referring to HB 1337.

“That bill endangers the lives of women. It endangers and jeopardizes research,” continued Gregg. “That’s nothing about pro-life. That’s what’s wrong with the Indiana General Assembly and extremists controlling issues like this.”

In another statement on the measure, Gregg said that the “state government should focus on growing the economy, raising wages, strengthening schools and fixing unsafe roads and bridges, not on private conversations between Hoosiers and their doctors.”

The Democratic candidate for governor has also criticized the legislation as “not well thought out or properly vetted” in a statement.

Although Gregg says he is personally opposed to abortion, anti-choice groups haven’t gotten behind him. When Gregg told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in August 2015 that Planned Parenthood provides “vital services … to underserved communities and populations across Indiana and the nation,” Indiana Right to Life Political Action Committee (PAC) said he was “ just another Planned Parenthood and abortion industry ally.”

In truth, Gregg’s position on abortion is a bit more nuanced than the anti-choice group would have its supporters believe.

In May 2015 during a phone interview with the Indy Democrat Blog, Gregg stuck to his opposition to abortion care, but noted that he never brought up an anti-choice measure during his time in the state’s General Assembly. “It wasn’t my issue,” he told the blog.

During that interview, he also commented that he agreed with “96 percent” of Planned Parenthood’s services, including their work to prevent “unplanned pregnancy.” He recounted the story of how early cancer detection helped save his own life ten years ago and discussed similar services offered at Planned Parenthood health centers.

His aforementioned statement in the Journal Gazette later that year further explained that the Democrat may back Planned Parenthood, but he also supports “the current law that prevents federal dollars from subsidizing abortions,” a likely reference to the Hyde Amendment’s yearly appropriations ban on federal funding for the majority of abortion care.

Gregg’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests from Rewire for clarification about whether he would approve legislation that would safeguard reproductive care or about his opinion on Hyde. The candidate’s apparent position, however, would put him at odds with his own party. The 2016 Democratic platform called for the repeal of the ban, saying “that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured.”

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also opposes the Hyde Amendment.

During his previous gubernatorial run against Pence in 2012, Gregg also highlighted his position on reproductive health care. Though he was sure to note his personal opposition to abortion, the Democrat attacked his rival candidate for wanting to defund Planned Parenthood.

“Folks, this issue is not about abortion. I am a pro-life Democrat. I am in the minority of my party. But this issue is about women’s access to health care,” Gregg said during a speech outside of a Planned Parenthood.

Gregg’s opponent in the gubernatorial race, meanwhile, would likely continue the anti-choice policies of the Pence administration under which he currently works.

Earlier this month, Holcomb was endorsed by the Indiana Right to Life PAC. In a statement on the matter, the organization’s chairman, Mike Fichter, said that “The Right to Life community has full confidence that the Holcomb and Crouch team will continue the many pro-life policies enacted by the Daniels and Pence administrations. We believe they will work closely with the pro-life leadership of the Indiana House and Senate.”

Upon accepting the Republican nomination for governor, Holcomb suggested he would not stop the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly from moving forward with new propositions on social issues, including abortion restrictions, according to a report from the Northwest Indiana Times.  

“We’ll play it as it comes to my desk should I be honored to be the next governor of this state,” said Holcomb on the issue.

He got even more specific during an interview with Indy Star in which he said he too would have signed the controversial HB 1337, because he “supports measures that protect the unborn.” He also told the outlet he supports the state’s contract with the anti-choice Real Alternatives, a chain of fake clinics. That program may now be stalled after a recent audit found the chain could have engaged in inappropriate billing practices.

Holcomb says he is okay with “pro-life organizations receiving contracts.”

Speaking with Rewire’s Christine Grimaldi in August about Holcomb’s nomination, Democratic leaders in Indiana didn’t seem hopeful that the Republican would step away from Pence’s extreme policies on abortion and other hot-button issues such as LGBTQ rights and anti-discrimination efforts if he were elected.

Indiana House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath said that the governor “didn’t even give  a second thought” to signing HB 1337, and that “Eric Holcomb will be no different” if elected.

John Zody, chair of the Indiana Democratic Party, similarly noted that with Holcomb’s nomination, “The person who was closest to Mike Pence’s agenda, quite literally, is now the candidate for governor.”

Patti Stauffer, vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, told Rewire that “there is a lot at stake” during this year’s gubernatorial race in Indiana.

“There is no question that Gov. Pence has created an environment here that is extremely hostile to women, and we have no reason to believe that Eric Holcomb would change the direction that has been taken previously under the Pence administration, and so of course that is extremely troubling to us,” she said during a Wednesday interview.

According to Stauffer, Gregg “certainly has an understanding of the damage to public health that has been done by the very extreme public policies promoting under Gov. Pence, and we are extremely hopeful that that would change under a John Gregg administration.”

The continuation of Pence’s policies may also include the state’s “religious freedom” law, which would have codified discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in Indiana. State lawmakers say they “fixed” Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) so it wouldn’t allow for that discrimination after national outrage and threats from businesses to boycott the state.

Though Holcomb told Indy Star in September that he wishes the state had avoided the RFRA controversy, he also told local news outlet WIBC that while he cared about ensuring people aren’t discriminated against, it was important “to make sure that the First Amendment is protected—the religious liberties and religious freedom and free exercise thereof—for everyone, so we’re not discriminating on that front.”

Gregg has his own complicated history with LGBTQ rights, after having previously opposed marriage equality efforts. He says he changed his mind on the subject in part after his stepdaughter encouraged him to analyze the topic from a legal perspective considering civil rights.

But the Democrat now supports the full repeal of the state’s RFRA law, and has expressed disappointment that the state legislature has thus far failed to push through anti-discrimination efforts for LGBTQ individuals—an issue he brought up himself during Tuesday’s debate.

According to Stauffer, in addition to the state’s abortion restrictions, Indiana’s RFRA law was one of the “very extreme stances of Gov. Pence” that had not “served our state well.”

Stauffer said that no matter who is elected, Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, would “continue to push and mobilize that grassroots effort to make sure that people in the statehouse understand that we are here and we aren’t going to be going away.”

“You know, it is extremely difficult here in Indiana because we have a supermajority environment right now with the statehouse and we don’t anticipate that changing, but certainly having some balance on the governor’s side would help to begin to move a dialogue in a more collaborative fashion,” she continued. “And so we intend to do that.”

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