Indiana’s Dangerous Anti-Abortion Laws are Mike Pence’s Legacy

If the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale felt like journalism rather than dystopian fiction to the nation, in Indiana it was old news.

Mike Pence’s religiously-coated misogyny resulted in a series of disasters during his time as Governor of the Hoosier State: There was the incarceration of Purvi Patel for allegedly inducing her own abortion, a decision which was later overturned; Pence also slashed funding for Planned Parenthood in the state, which contributed to a rural HIV outbreak. Some of Pence’s attempts to regulate sexuality by targeting abortion access created several messes that were so bad federal authorities had to step in to clean them up—in fact, an appeals court just declared a piece of legislation regulating abortion signed into law by Pence unconstitutionalUnfortunately, Pence’s legacy of anti-woman policies and anti-abortion extremism has been continued by his successor, Governor Eric Holcomb. 

I’ve lived in Indiana for six years while pursuing my PhD at Purdue University. I’ve had hundreds of brilliant, compassionate, intelligent students. My partner is an Indiana native, as are my in-laws. I’ve met many a feminist in Indiana. I’ve marched with them and protested with them. But for all this, I sometimes find myself asking: Does Indiana hate women?

I’m asking this question in the wake of the passage of Indiana’s latest abortion law, Senate Enrolled Act 340, which requires doctors to collect a variety of information on women who receive abortions. SEA 340 made some national headlines when it was reported that any women seeking medical or psychological care in Indiana would be required to tell her physician whether or not she has had an abortion, but this isn’t quite true. The truth is, incredibly, even worse.

SEA 340 requires health professionals to report on 26 health problems if they are related to having an abortion—including infection, blood clots, shock, pre-term delivery in subsequent pregnancies, physical injury associated with treatment performed at the abortion facility, adverse reaction to anesthesia or other drugs, psychological or emotion complication, including depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, sleeping disorders and death.  The law also mandates collection of an immense amount of data on both abortion providers and patients—including the patient’s marital status, the name of the physician, the age of the fetus in weeks and whether or not the patient has any deceased children, and how many. (That is separate from the demand that how many previous abortions the patient has had is recorded, too.)

This is only a small sampling of the data abortion providers are now required to submit to the state. Failure to report on this data by a physician or mental health professional would result in up to six months in jail or a fine of up to $1,000.

Requiring doctors to report on pre-term deliveries women may have after having an abortion clearly indicates that Indiana is putting an infrastructure in place to track women who have abortions throughout their childbearing years. An earlier section of the law even stated that the state department of Indiana would develop an informed consent brochure including, among other things, “objective scientific information concerning the medical risks associated with each abortion procedure or the use of an abortion inducing drug, including… the risks of infection and hemorrhaging [and] the potential danger to a subsequent pregnancy or of infertility.”

“It seems to me that this is an attempt to make this appear like a dangerous procedure,” Sue Errington, the Democratic representative for Muncie, Indiana, told the IndyStar, “and it’s not.” Errington is right: Abortion is an incredibly safe medical procedure with a 0.6 or 0.7 mortality rate; women have a greater chance of dying from a colonoscopy, plastic surgery or pregnancy than an abortion. The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries, with 26 out of every 100,000 women dying of pregnancy related complications, even though a full 60 percent of these deaths are preventable; carrying a pregnancy to term is, therefore, objectively far more dangerous to women than abortion.

None of that matters, of course—because the state of Indiana is putting resources into identifying a non-existent connection between abortion and negative health consequences for women not out of a sense of duty, but in ideological fervor.

The approach has legal precedent. Abstinence-only sex education (AOUM) curricula, which remains federally-funded, subtly pushes the narrative that girls and women who want to have sex outside of marriage lack confidence—and may be ill. Section 510(b) of the Social Security Act lays out eight criteria, known as the A-H criteria, that AOUM must emphasize equally; criterion E reads mandates that programs teach “that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” In terms of formal logic, criterion E is a conditional statement of the form if p then q—however, in my research, I see criterion E show up as a bi-conditional statement where sex before marriage both causes harm and is simultaneously evidence that harm has already occurred. Most frequently, this harm is constructed as a vague sense of loss of ambition, self-respect or self-confidence by women and girls.

Abstinence educator Pam Stenzel, when defining sex for high schoolers, often shares a horrifying story of a girl who gets pre-cancerous HPV around age 13, and then asks girls if it’s worth potentially sacrificing their future reproductive capacity to be liked. The implication in Stenzel’s victim-blaming narrative is that the girl in question was already suffering from a lack of self-confidence, which made her susceptible to pre-marital sexual activity. In the curriculum A.C. Green’s Game Plan, aimed at middle schoolers, a fictional girl named Tina starts pressuring a fictional boy named Steve for sex; when he declines, they break up, and later, Steve finds out that Tina was pregnant all along and became a teenage mother—while he went to college and married a woman as committed to abstinence as he is. Here, the trope of the scheming woman reinforces the idea that people—particularly woman—who want to have sex outside of marriage are untrustworthy. 

This idea isn’t new. It can be traced back at least to World War II when a propaganda campaign warned that women who wanted to have sex outside of marriage invariably had gonorrhea or syphilis. In WWII, several pieces of legislation were passed that criminalized sex work, reasoning that all sex workers had what were then called venereal diseases (VD)—which they gave to soldiers, thereby decreasing military might. However, the term “prostitute,” used in these laws, was broadly defined to mean almost any working-class woman. If a woman was suspected of prostitution she could be arrested, tested for VD and, if positive, sent to a quarantine hospital for a course of treatment lasting about three weeks. While quarantined, these women were sometimes used in trials for VD treatment protocols.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The rationale of “women’s health” and “women’s safety” gets thrown around often by anti-woman lawmakers seeking to police women’s bodies with policies grounded not in medical reality, but in a patriarchal ideology which seeks to control women’s sexuality. The fundamental assumption of this type of ideology is that women’s sexuality can’t possibly be good for them if it isn’t controlled by men. This is the thread that connects the myriad attempts throughout history to find ways to punish women for having sex on their own terms—from restrictive sex education to curtailing access to birth control and passing TRAP laws to make abortion functionally inaccessible in some states.

SEA 340 is a more insidious and dangerous TRAP law than many we’ve seen. Instead of mandating hallway widths and forcing abortion providers into transfer agreements with local hospitals, it increases a burden of paperwork—and criminalizes medical professionals who dare to respect a woman’s privacy by not tracking her healthcare for a significant amount of time after her abortion. All the while, it allocates significant state resources to inventing a practically non-existent harm instead of confronting the real health issues faced by women—such as maternal mortality, domestic violence or even food insecurity.

SEA 340 is a pure expression of the ideology that men and the state must control women’s bodies and sexualities—and Mike Pence is its mascot. A divisive governor in Indiana and, now, the Vice President, Pence’s discomfort with the idea of women as people and his vigorous efforts to undermine their autonomy is well-documented. Shortly after Pence took office, his rule to never dine or drink alone with a woman who wasn’t his wife made headlines. Critics rightly pointed out that, while coded as a way to avoid suspicion of infidelity, this code, known as the “Billy Graham” rule, worked to block women from the informal network of power shared by men. Moreover, it is rooted in a toxic view of sexuality in which at least one party, by virtue of their sex, is always untrustworthy.

It might be worth asking: What exactly is Mike Pence so afraid of? That without a group of people around he will accidentally commit sexual assault? That he will be assaulted by a woman overcome with lustful urges? Or that he may finally have to face women—in all of their independence, might and humanity?

In many ways, Pence was the perfect balance to the Trump ticket. Together, they embody the virgin/whore dichotomy patriarchal structures are always forcing women into: If Trump wants all women to be whores available for his use, Pence wants them all to be virgins/“mothers.”

While my state’s latest abortion law was not authored or signed into law by the Vice President, it is completely in keeping with his worldview as a self-proclaimed, unrepentant culture warrior and Christian NationalistIndiana’s persistent attacks on women’s rights are Mike Pence’s legacy—and the reverberating impacts of his anti-autonomy agenda are now a warning to women across the country of what he wants the world to look like.



Jaimalene Hough is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Purdue University completing her dissertation, "Virgin Land: Young Women and Sexual Citizenship in the Contemporary United States."