Abortion, conscience and the legislature
When I first began covering politics for The Indianapolis Star in 1991, there was an emotional battle underway to keep abortion out of a party platform: The Republican Party platform.
It was led mostly by strong-willed Republican women, many of whom called themselves pro-life but who saw a government dictate as conflicting with their belief in a small government that respects individual liberty.
Times have certainly changed. An anti-abortion stance has become synonymous with the GOP and the legislature — usually led by Republicans but also anti-abortion Democrats — has passed numerous restrictions on a woman’s ability to make the health care decisions she deems best for herself.
This week, the legislature added to those laws by passing House Bill 1337. It began as legislation regulating the disposal of a fetus. Thursday, the House voted 60-40 to adopt changes added in the Senate — changes which the House never held hearings on nor debated until that vote — which bar women from having an abortion for reasons of race, gender or disability. That includes severe disabilities which would be fatal to the infant after delivery.
Proponents argued that it may save a life, and said that the disability couldn’t be the sole reason for the abortion. Opponents argued that it left the state trying to divine a woman’s motives, since abortion for no stated reason is still legal in the first trimester, and potentially forcing her to lie to her physician.
Listening to the debate I could not help but remember 1991, and the announcement by then-Mayor Bill Hudnut and his wife, Beverly, that they had aborted her much-wanted pregnancy in the 18th week after tests showed the fetus had numerous abnormalities, including ancephaly.
In a letter in 1992 to the Republican National Committee, which was wrestling with putting an anti-abortion plank in its platform, the Hudnuts wrote that: “It was a heart-wrenching decision because we wanted our baby very badly and already loved him dearly.”
“We would have been terribly upset if an outside force, namely government, had prevented us from following the dictates of our conscience,” they wrote.
Under the bill now headed to Gov. Mike Pence, who surely will sign it into law, the Hudnuts — who later were blessed with a healthy child — would have been forced to either continue the pregnancy or lie that the massive abnormalities were not the sole reason for aborting a pregnancy that they otherwise wanted very much to continue.
The debate over the bill, though, showed one thing hasn’t changed all that much. It was largely Republican women in the Indiana House of Representatives who bravely stood up and urged their colleagues to defeat the bill. Some argued that such a major change shouldn’t be allowed to become law without a hearing and the input of constituents. Some argued that the state was inappropriately substituting its wisdom for that of the women, their families, physicians and ministers.
Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Mount Vernon, was among those who said her “no” vote on the bill didn’t make her any less of a pro-life advocate.
But, she said, “this (bill) signals a move back to backroom abortions to avoid the shame.”
She predicted the barrage of election-year mailers she and other “no” votes likely will receive attacking them on this issue from those they have considered allies, but said policy trumps political considerations.
Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer, R-Beech Grove, emotionally shared her own story of turning to Planned Parenthood when she found her self a pregnant teenager. She didn’t go through with the abortion, but called the legislation government over-reach, with no debate in a House committee on this issue and no chance for her constituents to weigh in.
And Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, told her colleagues that she is “pro-life” but could not support a bill that says the state knows better than grieving parents. Parents, in my view, like the Hudnuts.
A majority of the House, though, didn’t listen to them. Instead, they did what Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, warned them against.
Eberhart said his wife was “as pro-life as they come” but in talking to her on the bill she had had questions, lots of them — including why the legislature didn’t take the time to properly debate the issue and carefully examine the language of the bill to fully understand what it did and didn’t mean to a woman faced with delivering a severely or even fatally disabled infant.
And he concluded pretty much where the Hudnuts and those strong Indiana Republican women did back in 1992: Perhaps government shouldn’t make the most personal decision for every family even in pursuit of a lofty goal.
Looking out at a legislature of mostly men, Eberhart said: “We just need to quit pretending we know what’s best for women and their health care needs.”