Pro-life shades of red
Legislative special sessions after Dobbs draw attention to differing views among Republicans about abortion
When Indiana state Rep. Ann Vermilion took the floor before the House voted on a pro-life bill on Aug. 4, her 15-minute speech caused a stir. The Republican incumbent from Marion County had received the Indiana Right to Life endorsement for the May 2022 primary and advertised herself in mailers as “100% Pro-Life.” She won in a landslide. But now that the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health had overturned Roe v. Wade and Indiana was considering a bill that would protect most babies from abortion, her position was shifting.
“The U.S. Supreme Court made the decision to move the abortion rights to the state level, which has peeled an onion on the details of abortion, showing layers and layers of such a difficult topic that I myself—I wasn't prepared for,” said Vermilion. “And so with that, the last two weeks have changed me profoundly. I have moved in my ideology in ways I never imagined.” She said she was a devout Christian and was still pro-life but announced, “I believe that no government should take away a woman’s ability for safe medical care during an unwanted, unplanned pregnancy.”
As she spoke, cheers from pro-abortion protestors reverberated through the halls of the Statehouse. Later that day, Vermilion was one of the 38 representatives who opposed the legislation Gov. Eric Holcomb eventually signed into law the same day. It will take effect on Sept. 15.
Indiana is one of three pro-life states that have convened special sessions to work on abortion legislation in the almost two months since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, giving states more freedom to protect unborn life. This new legal landscape is forcing Republican lawmakers like Vermilion to reexamine their personal convictions on the issue. The legislative discussions are drawing attention to longstanding differences among Republicans on abortion.
Eight other Republican representatives joined Vermilion in opposing the Indiana bill. Executive director Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana said the votes on this bill put lawmakers on the record for where they really stand on infant life. For some like Vermilion, it meant that they weren’t as strongly pro-life as they had claimed in their campaigns. Clark theorized that some Republicans who abandoned the pro-life vote did so out of concern for a pro-abortion wave in the November election. Vermilion was not available for an interview.
But election concerns might have sealed some of the pro-life votes, too.
“I think what a lot of legislators feared on the Republican side was, ‘Look, we’ve campaigned for years that we’re pro-life. If we don’t carry through with this now, we’re gonna face a backlash’—and they don’t want a primary opponent,” said Clark. That, he added, is exactly what some of the bill’s Republican opponents should expect in the next primary.
This bill also revealed Republican lawmakers who fell on the other side of the issue. Four of the eight House Republicans opposed the bill because it wasn’t pro-life enough. They had voted for failed amendments that would have removed exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and fetal abnormality, leaving only exceptions for the life of the mother and serious health concerns. Clark said he expected from early on that this kind of effort would fail: Based on a headcount from House and Senate leadership, he knew they didn’t have the votes to pass a bill without those exceptions.
Clark agreed that the bill wasn’t what he would have considered perfect. In addition to allowing for abortions in cases rape and incest, it did not require victims to file police reports, potentially creating a loophole for people to falsely claim the exception. It also lacked certain measures that he and others thought would ensure enforcement of the law even though some local elected officials said they don’t intend to expend resources to uphold it. But Clark saw the final version as an improvement on earlier drafts. As signed by the governor, the bill will force abortion facilities to close and will penalize doctors with the loss of their medical licenses if they perform illegal abortions.
“You have to kind of take what you get, what you got votes for,” Clark said. Hundreds of pro-abortion activists turned out at the State Capitol daily to protest the bill. Clark said failing to pass it in the face of such opposition could have signaled to the rest of the country to not touch the abortion issue, especially coming on the heels of a pro-life amendment in Kansas that failed in the August primaries.
The week before the Indiana bill received the governor’s signature, lawmakers in West Virginia failed to pass their own legislation that would have protected babies from most abortions.
Wanda Franz, president of West Virginians for Life, attributed the failure to an ongoing lack of cooperation between the House and Senate that continued in the special session. Rather than working together on legislation, both chambers pushed for their versions of the bill. One included criminal penalties for doctors and strict reporting requirements for cases of rape and incest while the other lacked criminal penalties and had more relaxed reporting requirements. But Franz said the changing legal landscape since the overturn of Roe v. Wade also affected the attitudes of lawmakers. Some who had no problem leaving out rape and incest exceptions in bills before Roe’s overturn opposed efforts to remove those exceptions this summer.
“I think that it’s easier to be pro-life when you have abortions that are wide open and accessible and the bills that you’re trying to pass are not directly affecting the practice of abortion,” said Franz. But she said she had expected a shift among lawmakers following the Supreme Court’s decision. She thinks the angry protesters at the West Virginia Capitol during the weeklong special session also affected the legislators. “I was expecting that we would see some of those people that we always considered to be pro-life—who considered themselves to be pro-life—not staying with our agenda, and feeling, you know, a little panicky about the next election coming up.”
Franz said West Virginians for Life last polled lawmakers about their abortion-related positions before the May primary and before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Now that they’re in a post-Roe reality, she said they would have to reevaluate their endorsements of some candidates.
Discussions on abortion in Indiana and West Virginia have wrapped up for now, but the legislature in South Carolina is holding its own special session. Last Monday, a House committee advanced legislation to the full House floor, where lawmakers will take it up on Aug. 30.
The current version of the House bill would effectively end abortion in the state, only providing exceptions for the mother’s life and serious health concerns. Language in the legislation specifies some precise cases in which this exception will apply. But Rep. John McCravy, who helped craft the legislation, said he expected a big “floor fight” among Republicans in the full House about adding rape, incest, and fetal anomaly exceptions. Justin Hall, director of communications for Palmetto Family Council, said there were as many “different shades of red” on the abortion issue as there were Republican lawmakers in the state. The views range from support for laws that criminalize women who access abortions to thinking that even the state’s heartbeat law (currently unenforceable due to a court ruling) goes too far.
“Everybody is now going to have to develop their own beliefs on this,” said McCravy. “We’re going to find find out which Republicans were just [calling themselves pro-life] as a tool to win a primary or whether they really believe that.” He said that would be a good thing because it would allow voters to get a better idea of whom they want to support in upcoming elections.
President Carol Tobias of the National Right to Life Committee said that she expected these “internal family battles” and that they aren’t anything new. Sure, there would be some like Vermilion who saw a dramatic shift in their position, but she said most Republicans would only be disagreeing about what she called “hard cases,” such as rape, incest, and physical health of the mother or baby. “We’re still looking at disagreement among maybe 5 percent of all abortions being performed,” she said. “The pro-life Republican candidates want to stop 95 percent of all abortions …. That is very different from the Democratic Party that doesn’t want any limits.”
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