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Pills, Politics, and Pence

Is Mike Pence the great hope of evangelicals in the GOP?

It was high time for someone to throw Mike Pence a bone. It arrived on April 7, hurled all the way from Texas. On that day, Matthew Kacsmaryk, a U.S. District Court judge, issued a bizarre but consequential ruling that sought to halt the use of mifepristone, which is part of a two-drug regimen to induce a medical abortion. Kacsmaryk, a judge in northern Texas who was appointed by former president Donald Trump, took issue with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone twenty-three years ago. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit took on the case soon after, narrowing some of Kacsmaryk’s ruling but also questioning the FDA’s efforts in recent years to ensure easier access to the pill. They issued a preliminary ruling, with a full-case appeal to come.   

Pence, who lives in a McMansion in a tony Indianapolis suburb, excitedly caught the bone from Texas in his teeth. The former vice president, who is trying to position himself as the great hope of evangelicals in the GOP presidential race, took to the airwaves prepped with all the talking points he had been dying to use. On CBS’s Face the Nation he declared that he wanted the abortion pill “off the market.” It was an A-plus performance, with Pence frowning and extrapolating on how problematic he found the FDA’s approval of the drug twenty-three years ago, as if it had been on his mind every day since. Finally, to make sure that he was also pinning blame on the Biden administration as evangelical enemy number one, he decried current policies that have permitted the drug to be obtained through the mail.

In the weeks leading up to Pence’s demand that the abortion pill be taken off the market altogether, confusion swirled about the effects of the Texas ruling—a judge in the state of Washington decided a similar case, ordering the FDA to not to restrict mifepristone in states where abortion is legal. The U.S. Supreme Court stepped in on April 21 to prevent the Texas ruling from taking effect for now. Forced-birth religionists all over America sulked and scowled. For the time being, their beloved court had denied another opportunity to own the libs. At the same time, being disappointed in the court is a familiar and even comfortable position for them—one they lived with for almost five decades as they fought to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The “for now” position of the Supreme Court adds just the right amount of drama to the evangelical cause. This suspension of judgment does not preclude the court from banning the pill later; it maintains suspense while keeping the hopes of a nationwide ban alive. It could even be argued that the resurrected debate over the abortion pill is proof of the truth that the GOP’s evangelical wing does not really have a vision of political participation without abortion as a centerpiece. Pence’s support for a complete ban on the pill is evidence of this. In fact, in his Face the Nation interview, he took issue with Trump’s position that abortion laws should be left to the states. “This isn’t a states-only decision,” he said, as he speculated that a new Congress and president after 2024 could enact a national ban on all abortions after fifteen weeks.  

The national prospects for the GOP may be in question, but the abortion pill issue signals how conservative states like Indiana and Texas are inhabiting a different cultural reality than states where there is wide support for abortion access.

You can see how the evangelical addiction to the abortion issue has played out in deep-red Indiana. Last August, Indiana became the first state to pass a near-total abortion ban after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. (The restriction hasn’t taken effect because the Indiana Supreme Court is considering a case brought by the ACLU that argues the ban violates the state’s religious freedom law and privacy protections in the state’s constitution.) And in February, Indiana attorney general Todd Rokita (along with attorneys general of twenty other “conservative” states) signed on to a letter warning pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens of legal action if they sold abortion pills “using the mail,” citing state and federal laws against mail distribution. This action is telling because Rokita (a conservative in the Mike Pence mold) clearly believes the abortion issue can be a winner for him. The demographics of the post-Trump Indiana electorate reveal one reason why. According to a recent Pew Survey, 51 percent of the Indiana electorate believes that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. While only 24 percent of Hoosiers in the 18-29 age group took that hard line, only 22 percent of the youngest demographic were willing to say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

The numbers are quite likely similar in other conservative states where GOP strategists have wrangled with the issue of how religious young voters can be galvanized in the post-Dobbs universe. The answer they have arrived at appears to be this reborn debate over the abortion pill. In emphasizing, as Pence did in his interview, that abortions are still going on (more than half of abortions in the United States are undertaken via use of the pill) the current rallying cry is that the quest to protect the unborn has only reached a partial victory with Dobbs. Thus, the levers of the anti-abortion Republican voter production machine can be kept running.

The national prospects for the GOP may be in question, but the abortion pill issue signals how conservative states like Indiana and Texas are inhabiting a different cultural reality than states where there is wide support for abortion access. Yet, the more liberal states may in fact be more vulnerable to the relentless anti-abortion efforts than they realize. One indication of the threat can be seen in how Kacsmaryk’s opinion cited the Comstock Act. Passed in 1873, this piece of legislation was the brainchild of the notorious bluenose Anthony Comstock. The Act prohibits the circulation of lewd or obscene materials along with any device or information relating to contraception or abortion. If the Supreme Court chooses to use this act as the basis on which to judge abortion pill access, the consequence could well be a blanket ban on a method used in half of the abortions throughout the United States.

One would have thought that the GOP’s poor performance in the midterm elections following the overturning of Roe v. Wade would have pushed the party away from making abortion the core of their policy agenda. That they didn’t is a sign that the post-Trump GOP is a hollowed-out shell of its former self, without conviction about much of anything other than immigrant-bashing and abortion-banning. One consequence of Roe v. Wade being the law of the land for as long as it was is that not only did women begin to count on its availability as a constitutional right but also that white evangelicals in the GOP became dependent on opposing Roe as the central draw for evangelical voters in their party.

Indiana is again a case on point. The overturning of Roe last year led to a revealing debate in the Indiana GOP. As Indiana rushed to pass the first new anti-abortion legislation, evangelicals took the lead, sermonizing on the House floor. Fiscal conservatives and moderate Republicans shrank back and were shocked at the insistence of their evangelical colleagues, who wanted to pass the most draconian law possible. The GOP’s supermajority in the Indiana House and Senate meant that the debate was an internal one between different wings of the party; the moderates arguing for exceptions for rape and incest, while evangelicals wanted no such exceptions. The law passed with language allowing abortions in some cases of rape, incest, and fatal fetal abnormalities, or when a pregnancy poses severe risks to the mother. It was signed into law by Republican governor Eric Holcomb, who had been Pence’s lieutenant governor.

The renewed abortion pill fight now seems to be Pence’s ticket to showing himself as a man of conviction. Pence has been struggling for relevance as other Republicans tentatively stake out positions in advance of the coming GOP presidential primaries. He still had the sticky residue of having been a loyal Trump acolyte, while at the same time being demonized by Trump’s most cultish followers. Given the way the race for a GOP presidential nomination is shaping up, a candidate like Pence does not have much of a chance against Trump, or even against the DeSantis hype. The January 6 rioters’ chants of “Hang Mike Pence” suggests that no self-respecting Trumpist will vote for him. His dithering over whether to testify before the House on the issue while also criticizing Trump’s actions at other venues may project indecision to many suburban voters.

This may have been the end of Pence were it not for the overzealous Judge Kacsmaryk and his wild aspirations to push a nationwide ban on the abortion pill. It’s given Pence a new reason to pose as a somber “moral” leader. As the nomination battle in the GOP heats up, we are going to hear a lot more about abortion evangelicals like Pence, even while Republican consultants and poll-watchers fret about a backlash. Pence has made it clear he doesn’t think abortion laws should be left to the states. Meanwhile, as the Comstock-Pence vision of the world is realized in places like Indiana, women there will live under the kind of legal restrictions on their reproductive health that are in place in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia.