Indiana governor defends state’s abortion law as legal challenge against the ban heats up

GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb said Hoosiers who disagree with the ban can make their voices heard in November

By: and - September 16, 2022 7:00 am

Anti-abortion activists rally at the Indiana Statehouse on July 26, 2022. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle.)

Indiana’s Republican governor continued to defend the state’s near-total abortion ban after the new abortion law took effect on Thursday, saying he’s not concerned about possible economic repercussions or impacts on the state’s ability to retain and attract skilled workers.

The Hoosier state is the first in the nation to approve abortion-restricting legislation since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the ban in August after lawmakers approved the measure during a special legislative session.

Holcomb said he’s confident the ban is reflective of what most Hoosiers want. 

That’s 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. 

“If I had a nickel for every time I had somebody very sheepishly or quietly come up to me and say. ‘Thank you for signing,’ — they don’t want to be part of the yelling and the shouting,” Holcomb said Thursday in Marion, Indiana, following an economic development announcement.

“There are people on both sides of this issue,” he continued. “To find consensus on what is life and when is life and how we determine that is going to be an issue that we’ve not just argued about for 50 years, but we’re going to argue about… for 50 more.”

The ban outlaws all abortions except in the case of a fatal fetal anomaly and cases of serious health risk to the mother. One part of the law says these exceptions are up to 20 weeks but another part says they can be used anytime. Rape survivors can get an abortion up to 10 weeks post-fertilization. It also strips abortion clinics of their state medical licenses, and provides that only hospitals and hospital-owned ambulatory surgical centers can provide abortions.

Holcomb emphasized that lawmakers in the GOP-dominated legislature “very transparently ran for election and were very upfront about their position” on abortion-related matters. He said he would have been surprised if those legislators “voted differently than they told people they would.”

“I understand that people are on both sides of this issue,” Holcomb said. “This is part of where policy and politics intersect, and folks will have an ability to express their preferences come this November.”

More discourse over abortion ban lawsuit

Behind-the-scenes tensions flared up Thursday over how the state is handling its legal defense against a lawsuit that seeks to strike down the new abortion law on the basis that it violates the state constitution’s right to privacy.

Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears (Photo from LinkedIn)

Legal counsel representing defendant Marion County Prosecutor’s Office argued in a court filing Thursday that Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita will not “adequately represent” the office in court.

Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears, a Democrat, said in July that he would not prosecute abortion-related cases if the state legislature criminalized the procedure.

Attorneys representing his office — one of several defendants in a lawsuit spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana — appeared before the Monroe County court last week. 

Representatives from Rokita’s office on Monday filed a motion to strike that appearance, arguing that “only the Indiana Attorney General has authority to represent the defendants in this case.”

Mears’ counsel said in court documents that Rokita, a Republican, has views that “diametrically opposed” his and couldn’t be an advocate for him.

“(Mears) has concluded that requiring him to enforce the abortion ban and criminal penalties created by (the abortion ban) … would not be in the best interests of the residents of Marion County and would be an extraordinary misuse of prosecutorial resources and discretion,” the court filing said. “In his view, the law beats down the poorest women and intimidates doctors who are simply trying to provide routine care and treatment.”

Rokita’s office on Thursday did not comment specifically on the latest filing by Mears.

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Marion County Prosecutor's Respo

 

A spokesperson instead pointed to an earlier statement the AG’s office provided to the Indiana Capital Chronicle, which maintains that “the attorney general is the lawyer for the state.”

The ACLU filed a separate class action lawsuit last week that seeks to strike down the ban by claiming that it violates Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. An initial hearing has been set for Oct. 14.

Ken Falk, the ACLU of Indiana’s legal director, remained positive that his organization would win its cases.

“We remain confident that the courts will see this law for what it is, a flagrant attack on the rights of Hoosiers. This fight is far from over. We’ll continue doing everything in our power to restore abortion access in Indiana as soon as possible,” Falk said in a statement.

Democrats double-down opposition

At a press conference outside the Indiana statehouse Thursday, the vice chair of the Indiana Democratic Party, Myla Eldridge, repeatedly called it a “sad day” for Indiana and its residents because the Republican Party had prioritized an “extremist agenda” over Hoosier rights.

Some Republicans openly admitted that the case of a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio over the summer lead to the legislature’s inclusion of a rape and incest exception. But that exception narrowly passed the Senate and House, with a minority of House Republicans joining House Democrats to keep that option available.

“The Indiana Republican Party believes this new ban doesn’t go far enough; Gov. Eric Holcomb called the new law progress — endangering a little girl’s life is progress to them?” Eldridge said. “The (GOP) is putting their extremist agenda before the future of our state.”

Vice chair of the Indiana Democratic Party, Myla Eldridge (Photo courtesy of the Indiana Democratic Party)

Eldridge criticized the state for sending “chump change” to family social services in an attempt to alleviate the physical, emotional and financial burden on the estimated 1.5 million women of reproductive age in Indiana.

A study from the University of Colorado Boulder estimated maternal mortality deaths would increase by 24% overall and 9% in Indiana alone. Indiana has the third-highest maternal mortality rate in the nation. 

The maternal mortality rate for Black Hoosier women is an estimated 1.5 times higher than that for white women and the Colorado study estimated that Black women nationwide would see bigger increases in maternal mortality under an abortion ban than their white peers.

Eldridge and a slate of other Democrat candidates on the November ballot urged Hoosiers to vote this year and turn the tide.

“I do feel optimistic that Hoosiers will flood the polling places in November to vote for people who care about what they have to say,” said Joey Mayer, who is challenging Zionsville’s Republican Rep. Donna Schaibley. “And we’ll put Indiana back on a path to reproductive healthcare freedom, a place where every Hoosier thrives.”

Meanwhile, Indiana Right to Life CEO Mike Fichter said in a statement that the abortion ban “marks a new opportunity” for Hoosiers to “come together to show true love and compassion for pregnant mothers and their unborn babies.”

“This historic moment is not about who wins and who loses, or about mere politics and court battles, but about a fresh new hope that a movement of the heart will unfold in Indiana that sets the pace for protecting life and providing the care and support pregnant mothers deserve,” he said.

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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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Whitney Downard
Whitney Downard

A native of upstate New York, Whitney previously covered statehouse politics for CNHI’s nine Indiana papers, focusing on long-term healthcare facilities and local government. Prior to her foray into Indiana politics, she worked as a general assignment reporter for The Meridian Star in Meridian, Mississippi. Whitney is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University (#GoBonnies!), a community theater enthusiast and cat mom.

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