5 p.m. update:
In a widely-anticipated action, Gov. Mike Pence signed into law Thursday an expansion of the state’s abortion restrictions, a divisive issue that’s once again placed the state at the center of a national debate.
Pence, a social conservative with a long track record of opposing abortion, described the new restrictions as a “comprehensive pro-life measure that affirms the value of all human life.”
Gov. Mike Pence is once again at the center of a national debate over a divisive issue.
He must decide by Thursday whether to sign a controversial and potentially unconstitutional bill that further restricts abortion in Indiana, which already has some of the most restrictive laws in the nation.
The measure, House Enrolled Act 1337, would make Indiana only the second state to prohibit a woman from seeking an abortion because her fetus was diagnosed with a disability such as Down syndrome. It also would prohibit abortions when they are sought based on the gender or race of a fetus, and would require the remains of miscarried or aborted fetuses to be interred or cremated.
The proposal has garnered national headlines and incited heated rhetoric from those on both sides of the issue. Supporters say it will protect unborn babies who can’t protect themselves. Opponents say it’s an effort to increase abortion costs and shame women for utilizing a legal medical procedure.
But questions remain about whether the bill will have much of a practical impact on the decisions women make or on Indiana's abortion rate, which has declined 20 percent in the past five years and is below the national average.
Pence, a rock-ribbed social conservative who set off a national firestorm last year when he signed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is widely expected to sign the anti-abortion legislation, though he hasn't announced his intentions yet.
He has consistently supported new abortion restrictions in the past and needs his conservative base to turn out this fall in what is expected to be a hotly contested rematch of his 2012 race against Democrat John Gregg.
"Gov. Pence has long been a champion for the unborn and their mothers," said Mike Fichter, president of Indiana Right to Life. "We expect his actions on HEA 1337 will be another measure of that commitment."
The measure also is important to many Republicans in the General Assembly and not only because of their deeply held beliefs on the issue. Many of the measure’s key supporters are facing primary challenges from social conservatives or are running for Congress in contested primaries, where voters often put a premium on anti-abortion credentials.
“My read on this is a lot of this is for political purposes,” said Paul Helmke, an Indiana University civics professor and former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne. “Still, there’s a lot of strongly pro-life elected officials in the legislature. I think a lot of them feel that no abortion should be allowed at all, so anything that makes it harder to get an abortion, they’re going to vote for.”
Even social conservatives, who defended the measure as good public policy, agree that election-year politics likely played a role.
“Well, it’s an election year, and Indiana is very pro-life, and our General Assembly is very pro-life. That may be a factor,” said Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute.
The measure has stirred strong passions, both inside and outside the state.
"This legislation is being watched very closely by a wide variety of constituencies, not just in Indiana, but across the country," said Patti Stauffer, vice president for public policy for Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky.
She said the measure would chill open and honest dialogue between women and their physicians.
"It really does stigmatize and marginalize women who may be considering an abortion," she said. "It’s shaming and judging."
Sen. Jean Breaux, an Indianapolis Democrat, went as far as to call the measure "emotional terrorism."
But supporters of the bill — including Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma — have said the measure is worth it if it saves just one life.
“I think to have a child ripped apart in the womb is terrorism," Smith, of the Indiana Family Institute, said. "That’s the only form of terrorism I see in this debate."
Despite the fiery nature of the discourse, it's unclear how the law would play out in real life. The proposed ban on abortions would apply only when the sole reason for seeking the procedure is because the fetus may have a disability or is of a certain gender, race, color, national origin or ancestry.
Beth Cate, a public policy professor at Indiana University, questioned whether doctors would be left to infer a woman’s reasons for seeking an abortion based on her medical questions.
How do you know the reason a woman is seeking an abortion unless she explicitly states it — or does the doctor try to read her mind?
“I really don’t know how it’s going to work in practice,” Cate said.
That's a concern for many women. In fact, several female Republican lawmakers who described themselves as strong abortion opponents spoke out against the measure on the House floor, saying its restrictions went too far or were not properly vetted. Other women have said the measure feels intrusive.
Abby Hunt has three healthy children and was delighted when a few months ago she became pregnant with her fourth. But in February, at the end of her first trimester, she miscarried.
Follow-up tests determined that a significant problem had led to her miscarriage. About the same time, she heard about the legislative discussions on this issue.
Now, she doesn’t know whether she will try again, afraid that if she does, she might not be able to have open, painful discussions with her doctor if problems arose.
“This just made me so mad. I feel like it butted into my very personal and hard decision-making process,” Hunt said. “I’m just so upset by this. I just think that it’s the wrong approach.”
How the measure is perceived by women could play a role in the gubernatorial race if Pence signs it into law.
The November election could be tight for Pence, who already alienated some Republican business leaders amid the uproar over RFRA and concerns that it may have allowed discrimination against gay and transgender Hoosiers.
Now, the abortion bill could weaken Pence with suburban Republican women — another critical voting bloc.
"Did this bill go maybe a step too far, and might it cause some voters to actually think less of the people who advanced it?" said Robert Dion, a political scientist at the University of Evansville. "You never know, but my goodness, when a handful of Republican women vote against the party's legislative package, that's a telling sign."
So far, the Pence administration has made no announcements about the bill, other than to say he is a "strong supporter of the rights of the unborn" and "will give careful consideration to any bill that comes to his desk that defends the sanctity of human life."