INDIANAPOLIS — Abortion opponents, especially in conservative states, had hoped to swiftly pass a new wave of restrictions after Roe v. Wade was overturned. But so far, most Republican lawmakers have moved cautiously or done nothing at all, even in statehouses where they hold overwhelming majorities.
A debate playing out in Indiana this week is showing why.
Though Republican legislators support the broad idea of restricting abortion, they have clashing views on how far to go. Should there be an outright ban? If so, should there be exceptions for rape and incest? And what if a woman’s health is threatened by a pregnancy but doctors do not believe she will die?
“Those are all questions that are really difficult,” said State Senator Rodric Bray, an Indiana Republican whose caucus, which has long worked to limit abortions, has divided over a bill that would ban abortion with some exceptions. Before Roe was overturned this year, Mr. Bray said, lawmakers had not “spent enough time on those issues, because you knew it was an issue you didn’t have to really get into the granular level in. But we’re now there, and we’re recognizing that this is pretty hard work.”
Similar conversations are playing out across the country.
Unlike in conservative states that passed trigger bans on abortion years ago, when it remained a federal right, Republicans weighing the issue today are not governing in hypotheticals. They are contending with thorny questions about exceptions, nuanced disagreements within their own party and mixed public opinion during an election season in which abortion has become a defining issue. Recent high-profile cases, like that of a 10-year-old sexual assault victim from Ohio who traveled to Indiana to get an abortion because of new restrictions in her home state, have made clear the stakes of the debate.
Leaders in many Republican-led states seem to be biding their time. An exception has been West Virginia, where lawmakers advanced a near-total ban this week after a court blocked enforcement of an 1849 abortion ban in that state.
But in Nebraska, where an effort to pass a trigger ban narrowly failed early this year, Gov. Pete Ricketts has discussed the possibility of a special session but has yet to call one. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has largely avoided questions about whether he would take immediate steps to pass new restrictions. In South Dakota, where a ban went into effect after Roe was struck down, Gov. Kristi Noem backed away from an initial pledge to call lawmakers to the Capitol to consider more abortion bills. And in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she was focused on getting the courts to allow for enforcement of existing restrictions that had been blocked.
“Right now it wouldn’t do any good to call a special session,” Ms. Reynolds, a Republican, told local reporters last month.
In Indiana, at least in theory, passing an abortion ban should have been straightforward. Lawmakers there have approved sweeping abortion restrictions in recent years. Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly. And Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican who was once Mike Pence’s lieutenant governor, said on the day Roe fell that he wanted legislators to consider new limits.
“We have an opportunity to make progress in protecting the sanctity of life,” Mr. Holcomb said then, “and that’s exactly what we will do.”
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But in practice, getting Republicans to agree on a bill has been filled with dissent. The special session, initially set for early July, did not begin meeting until this week. Even before they met, some Republican lawmakers voiced disagreement with their party’s approach. And when some Republicans introduced legislation calling for a ban on abortion with limited exceptions, it managed to disappoint almost everyone, not just the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which called it a “cruel, dangerous bill,” but also Indiana Right to Life, which described it as “weak and troubling.”
“This particular legislation, probably the best analogy I can say is Swiss cheese — there’s so many holes,” said Jodi Smith, who spoke on behalf of Indiana Right to Life, and who noted during testimony before lawmakers this week that several Senate Republicans had sought that group’s endorsement.
The current version of the bill, which could still be altered, would outlaw abortions except when the life of a pregnant woman was found to be at risk, or when a woman signed an affidavit early in her pregnancy saying she was a victim of rape or incest.
Over two days of public testimony, no one voiced support for the bill. When it came up for a vote in a Senate committee on Tuesday, it advanced narrowly, with one Republican and all the Democrats voting against it, and with several Republicans who voted in favor voicing serious concerns.
Senator Ed Charbonneau, who was among the yes votes, said, “I guess my wish is that we make a bad bill less bad.” Senator Eric Bassler, who also voted to move the legislation forward, said, “There are many reasons not to support this bill on many different levels” and warned that he might vote against it in the full Senate. Even Senator Sue Glick, the bill’s sponsor, said she was “not exactly” happy with the measure as it went to the Senate floor, where a vote is possible on Friday.
“If it’s the will of the body to kill the bill on the floor, then so be it, but it’s a start,” Ms. Glick said.
The broad lines of the abortion debate remain well defined. At the Indiana Statehouse, large groups of protesters on both sides of the issue have gathered this week. Loud, competing chants of “We won’t stop at Roe” and “My body, my choice” echoed through the building’s hallways at various points, sometimes making it difficult to hear testimony in the hearing.
But even in a state where Democrats have little political power, Indiana Republican leaders find themselves in a political bind. Some Republican legislators, and many of the party’s most outspoken supporters, want to ban abortion with few or no exceptions. But one Republican state senator, Kyle Walker, said he wanted abortion to remain legal during the first trimester of pregnancy. And many in the party have raised questions about whether and how to include exceptions for rape, incest and a pregnant woman’s health.
“This is one of the most complex issues any of us will ever try to tackle in our lifetime, and this just demonstrates the near impossibility of threading the perfect needle” in a short session, said State Senator Mark Messmer, the Republican who voted against the measure in committee.
Complicating matters at a time when many lawmakers are campaigning for re-election is uncertainty about what voters believe about abortion. In Indiana, abortion opponents and abortion rights advocates both assert that public opinion favors their position, but at least one recent poll suggests a more complex, murky picture.
During marathon public comment sessions, several women told lawmakers to continue allowing access to abortions, sharing personal stories, and several doctors spoke against the bill, warning that it would have dire consequences for Indiana women. Abortion is currently legal in Indiana up until 22 weeks of pregnancy.
“Bans on abortion pose a threat to the health and well-being of Indiana youth,” Dr. Mary Ott, a pediatrician, said during her testimony. She added, “The proposed legislation politicizes what should be a private decision.”
Some anti-abortion activists spoke of a sense of betrayal that lawmakers who campaigned as abortion opponents were stopping short of a full ban. One man said, “Let’s not find a compromise”; another called the measure “a fraud masquerading as a pro-life bill”; and a third said there was no excuse not to pass a more restrictive law because “there’s a supermajority of supposedly pro-life Republican legislators here.”
Some hinted at electoral consequences for inaction.
“If the language of this bill isn’t changed, innocent children will die, God’s wrath will continue to be stored up against this state and the Republican Party will lose many of its God-fearing constituents,” Seth Leeman, the pastor of a Baptist church in Noblesville, an Indianapolis suburb, told lawmakers.
Even amid the intraparty squabbling, it remains very possible that Indiana will enact a near-total ban on abortion during its special session, which is expected to continue next week.
Some Republicans elsewhere are also moving ahead. In South Carolina, a special panel of lawmakers recently drafted a bill that would enact something close to a total ban on abortion in the state, though it could be months before it comes up for a final vote.
But even in conservative states where new restrictions do not immediately pass, Republicans have time on their side.
In Indiana, if legislators are unable to pass new restrictions in the next few weeks, they could try again during a new legislative session in 2023, some Republicans are already suggesting. Democrats are taking them at their word.
“I have concerns that if the bill dies, that Hoosiers might think that access to abortion care is safe — and I want people to know, no, it’s not safe,” said State Senator Shelli Yoder, a Democrat from the college town of Bloomington. “What they learned from this experience, they will come back in January, and they won’t fail again.”
Richard Fausset contributed reporting.