Kansans got to decide on abortion. What does it mean for Hoosiers?

The question is whether Indiana’s General Assembly will shift gears after unexpected vote

By: - August 4, 2022 7:00 am

Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, smiles at the Kansans for Constitutional Freedom watch party after Kansans voted to keep abortion a constitutional right on Tuesday. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

Indiana lawmakers have a new political calculus to consider after Kansans voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to keep abortion protections in their state’s constitution.

Roughly 60% of voters in Kansas rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have removed language that guarantees reproductive rights. It would have also put the issue of abortion in the hands of the state’s legislature. The Midwestern state is largely dominated by Republicans, similar to Indiana.

Indiana voters are unlikely to see a ballot measure affecting abortion laws, however.

Instead, Hoosier lawmakers are slated to choose if the state’s current abortion law, which allows the procedure up to 20 weeks gestation, should stay in place. It’s already a contentious debate — now made “even more complicated” by the Kansas decision, said Andy Downs, a former political science professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“I would be willing to bet the discussions that are going on right now will be a little bit different today than they were (before the Kansas vote) because there will be people who will say, ‘Kansas is a frigging Republican, conservative state, and two thirds said we shouldn’t be doing this,’” Downs said.

The question, he continued, is whether the General Assembly will seek to match the direction taken by Kansas — “a comparable state” —  or if lawmakers will view the issue as one specific to Indiana, needing a “Hoosier-specific” response.

The Indiana Senate last week passed a Republican-backed bill banning virtually all abortions, with few exceptions. The House is expected to vote on the measure as early as Friday during a special legislative session.

What the Kansas vote could mean for Indiana

Downs said the Kansas decision “may actually influence” some of the more conservative members of Indiana’s Republican Party, making the future of Indiana’s proposed abortion ban more uncertain.

“Folks who are sort of borderline Libertarian might be inclined to say, ‘Wait a minute, why are we getting into the business of people when we’re the government, we’re the party of small government. We want them out of people’s business,’” Downs said. “And that could result in some sort of change in legislation.”

Andy Downs, a former political science professor at Purdue University -Fort Wayne (From Purdue University – Fort Wayne website)

How safe lawmakers consider their seats to be could also be part of their “calculation,” Downs said. But the “vast majority” of GOP seats are unlikely to be lost to Democrats. Instead, challenges from the right are more likely. 

While some Republican lawmakers in the supermajority will see Democrats challengers use their voting records on abortion-restricting legislation against them, the supermajority is unlikely to lose its hold. 

That’s even despite a highly-guarded poll conducted by the House and Senate GOP campaign committees that indicates Hoosiers don’t want a near-virtual ban on abortion. 

“You could lose a few seats and still be a pretty sizable majority,” he said. “And let’s face it — at this point, so many people doubt the validity of polling. It will not be at all unusual for people to say, ‘Who cares what the poll says?’”

The full House is scheduled to take up amendments on the bill on Thursday. Indiana lawmakers have remained hushed about what additional changes could be made.

“I think it’s important for us to consider what did happen in Kansas. Absolutely,” said Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica. She was the only lawmaker to field questions from the Indiana Capital Chronicle on Wednesday about the decision in Kansas.

Hoosier lawmakers opposed to a ballot question

The only type of legally binding statewide referendum allowed in Indiana is to change the state’s constitution. 

Rep. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, and Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis filed amendments to the abortion bill that would have put a non-binding question on the ballot, but neither were successful.

Taylor’s proposed ballot question sought to ask voters “Shall abortion remain legal in Indiana?” Senators voted down the proposal in a 13-33 vote on Saturday. Sen. Kyle Walker, R-Lawrence, and Becker voted yes with Democrats.

“(Republicans) don’t want to hear from you. They don’t want to hear from Hoosiers across the state of Indiana who know that bodily autonomy is just the first step in taking away some of our constitutional rights,” Taylor said.

Becker’s version of the ballot question would have asked “Shall access to reproductive health care, including abortions, be provided by Indiana law?” Her amendment was never heard on the Senate floor.

Abortion bill author Sen. Susan Glick, R-LaGrange, said if the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade had come down earlier, the GOP caucus might have given a ballot option more consideration.

“We discussed that, to be honest with you,” Glick said. “But it is very difficult to get some of these issues framed up and put on the ballot.” 

Downs said he is “unsure” how an abortion-related referendum would meet the criteria necessary under Indiana law, other than through a proposed state constitutional amendment. 

Two separately-elected legislatures are required to approve a constitutional amendment before it can be placed on the Indiana ballot for a vote.

Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville. (Senate Republican website)

Indiana lawmakers last attempted to put a referendum on the ballot when Republicans tried to ask Hoosiers if same-sex marriage should be banned. After successfully passing a bill in 2011 to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions, lawmakers took up the issue again in 2013, but they were unable to find consensus on the measure.

Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said even if the legislature jumped through the necessary hoops, he “cannot imagine how you would put (abortion matters) successfully on a ballot,” given “the nuance of this issue.”

The Senate leader questioned how a question would even be crafted: “Could you say ‘Should abortion be legal? Should abortion be illegal for the first trimester? Should abortion be legal, with the exception of the life of the mother, or the life and the health of the mother, or the life and health of the mother and rape and incest?’”

Glick also raised concerns about the delay caused by a ballot referendum. Because lawmakers wouldn’t be able to get a ballot question by the midterm election in November, the next chance to get voter insight wouldn’t be until 2024.

“Generally speaking, it is a representative government that we have, and it’s our job to determine and communicate with our constituents and make decisions based upon that,” Bray said. “Usually, I think that responsibility is to be with us to make those decisions, and we’re accountable to our constituents, and they … decide whether we stay or whether we go.”

Indiana legislators have rarely allowed Hoosiers to speak on ballot questions. In 2008, lawmakers eliminated most of the state’s township assessors but allowed voters in the largest townships to decide if they wanted to keep the office.

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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Smith has had internships and fellowships at the Investigative Program in Berkeley, California, The Indianapolis Star, the Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington, D.C., The Washington Post, National Geographic, USA Today and other publications. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

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