Hamilton County’s state candidates weigh in on new abortion law

Several candidates from Hamilton County who are seeking state office were put on the spot Monday night in a public forum when they were asked to explain their positions on the state’s new abortion law.

At the Hamilton County League of Women Voters’ candidate forum, the incumbents in Indiana Senate District 30 and House Districts 24 and 39, along with their three Republican primary challengers, expressed differing opinions on the controversial measure despite all saying they are pro-life.

Under the new law, which Gov. Mike Pence signed at the end of March, doctors could be sued for wrongful death or face professional reprimand if they perform an abortion sought due to genetic abnormality or a fetus' race or gender. There is an exemption for fetuses not expected to live past three months if brought to term. The law also requires fetal remains to be either cremated or buried.

The measure makes Indiana one of the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to abortion.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, was one of 13 senators to vote against the bill in March.

“The bill was just too extreme to me,” Kenley said.

U.S. Marine Corps. Col. and political newcomer Scott Willis, who is running against Kenley for the 30th District seat, said the issue was one thing he and the senator could agree on.

“I would not have voted for it,” Willis said. “I am pro-life, but I do agree with exceptions.”

Reps. Donna Schaibley, R-Carmel, and Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, supported the measure.

“This is an issue that I don’t particularly enjoy talking about,” Torr said. “It’s whether or not you believe a fetus is a person, and I believe that it is.”

Torr’s primary opponent for the 39th District, Mary Castle Elementary School Assistant Principal Tom Linkmeyer, said he didn’t think he would have supported the bill despite being pro-life.

Schaibley said she voted for it to help protect disabled children, whom she believes are the most vulnerable.

“This was a bill that I really struggled with,” Schaibley said. “It was the hardest vote I’ve taken.”

Tea party activist Greg Fettig, who is challenging Schaibley in the 24th District, didn’t specify whether or not he would have voted for the bill had he been in office, but stressed that he believes no one has the right to take the life of another.

The new restrictions have prompted a backlash from abortion-rights activists, who have launched the “Periods for Pence” campaign in which women have called the governor’s office to tell him about their periods. Hundreds of abortion rights supporters gathered Saturday at the Statehouse to protest the law, which is set to take effect in July.

Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky has also filed a federal lawsuit against the measure, challenging the constitutionality of it.

At Monday night’s forum, the candidates were also asked about their stance on extending statewide protections for the LGBT community. Most said they were against sex or gender discrimination, but also religious discrimination. Finding the right balance is the difficult part, they said.

Earlier this year, the Indiana Senate sidelined legislation that would have extended civil rights to gay and lesbian Hoosiers—but not those who identify as transgender —without taking a vote before the session’s deadline.

The debate was prompted this year by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Pence signed into law in 2015. Critics said RFRA would have made it easier for businesses to discriminate against gay or transgender customers.

A national uproar over the measure pushed the General Assembly to approve a “fix” that prevents the law from being used as a defense in discrimination cases.

Kenley, Schaibley and Torr all voted for RFRA.

Fettig said he supports protecting LGBT individuals from employment discrimination, but believes if a baker or photographer has a strong religious belief against gay marriage, those individuals should not be forced to provide services.

“You have to respect their rights as well,” Fettig said of religious individuals. “It’s dicey.”

But that’s exactly why Willis said he would have voted against RFRA—because it’s too difficult to mandate.

“Where do we draw the line?” Willis said.

Linkmeyer said the state law should “embrace all.”

“I think there needs to be protection for all people,” Linkmeyer said.

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