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An abortion clinic is suing to open in Pete Buttigieg’s city. It could test his skills on a national stage.

The controversy around Whole Woman’s Health Alliance could put the South Bend mayor and presidential candidate in the spotlight.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, speaks during a news conference January 23, 2019 in Washington, DC
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, speaks during a news conference on January 23, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Whole Woman’s Health Alliance has been trying to open an abortion clinic in South Bend, Indiana, for more than a year.

The nonprofit applied for a license from the Indiana State Department of Health in August 2017, but officials denied the request. Since then, Whole Woman’s Health Alliance has been battling opposition from the department that it says is motivated by anti-abortion politics, not concern for the health of patients in Indiana, where state legislators have passed increasingly restrictive abortion laws in recent years.

Now the group is suing, and the controversy could put a spotlight on the abortion views of South Bend mayor and buzzy presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

Buttigieg, who supports abortion rights, helped resolve an earlier zoning controversy around the clinic in a way that satisfied both reproductive rights advocates and opponents. As mayor, he won’t be directly involved in deciding the WWHA lawsuit. But the suit could be a test of how Buttigieg handles the issue of abortion on a national stage, where mutually agreeable solutions might be harder to find. He’ll likely have to answer to reporters and advocates on tensions between abortion supporters and opponents in his state — and the country as a whole.

“What happens in South Bend is a microcosm for what’s happening statewide and what’s happening nationally,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, the president and CEO of WWHA, told Vox.

An abortion clinic is trying to open in South Bend. Last year, Mayor Pete Buttigieg got involved.

WWHA, which operates abortion clinics in five states, was first contacted in 2014 by abortion rights advocates who were concerned about access in Indiana, Miller said. There are currently six abortion clinics in the state, three of which are in Indianapolis, meaning some Indiana patients have to travel more than 200 miles round-trip or leave the state to get an abortion, according to WWHA.

After a long process of finding a building to house a clinic, the group applied for a license in August 2017. The license was denied in January 2018 — the rationale, Miller said, was that the group had withheld information from the health department, although she says WWHA provided all information requested.

The Health Department cannot comment on pending litigation, a spokesperson for the department told Vox.

After a lengthy appeals process, WWHA decided to reapply for a license. This February, the Health Department responded with a request for a large number of additional documents, many of which WWHA had already supplied, according to Miller.

Miller said the department’s reluctance to allow the clinic to open was motivated by pressure from anti-abortion activists. “It became very clear the state has no intention of giving us a license,” she said.

On Wednesday, WWHA sued in federal court. The group argues that the laws governing abortion clinic licensing in Indiana are vague and impose unnecessary burdens on abortion access, and is asking for an injunction suspending enforcement of the laws and allowing the clinic to open.

Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend since 2012, has not weighed in on WWHA’s lawsuit, or responded to Vox’s request for comment. But he has been involved in the clinic controversy.

After WWHA began trying to obtain a license for its South Bend clinic, the group Women’s Care Center, which operates anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers near abortion clinics, applied for an exception to South Bend zoning rules to open a facility next door (the rezoning was needed because the location was zoned for residential use).

“Our work is to offer women the opportunity to choose life without judgment, and we wanted to give women that opportunity on the west side of South Bend,” Jenny Hunsberger, the vice president of Women’s Care Center, told Vox.

The South Bend Common Council voted in favor of the rezoning, but last April, Buttigieg vetoed their ruling.

“I don’t think it would be responsible to situate two groups, literally right next to each other, in a neighborhood, that have diametrically opposed views on the most divisive social issue of our time,” he said at the time, according to the South Bend Tribune.

Buttigieg cited the potential for harassment of patients as part of his reasoning. “I saw data that there was about triple the rate of violence or harassment issues when a clinic is located next to a crisis pregnancy center,” he said.

“I appreciate the stand that he took,” Miller said.

Others were critical of Buttigieg’s decision. “For him to put a barrier in place for an organization that works to help women in need was really disappointing,” Jackie Appleman, executive director of St. Joseph County Right to Life, a local anti-abortion group, told Vox.

But ultimately, Women’s Care Center was satisfied with Buttigieg’s handling of the case. After he vetoed the rezoning, Hunsberger told Vox, the mayor met with Women’s Care Center representatives and asked them to find another location. They found one within a few days, and the new facility is under construction now.

“We are very happy with how things have worked out,” Hunsberger said.

The controversy over the South Bend clinic could put Buttigieg’s abortion views in the spotlight

Buttigieg has not made abortion rights a major focus of his campaign. But he has spoken on the issue. Asked in February for his thoughts on a New York state law lifting some restrictions on abortion, he identified himself as pro-choice.

“These questions ought to be resolved by women in consultation with their doctors, not by the intervention of male politicians putting politically motivated restrictions on women’s health care,” he said.

And in an appearance last Saturday in Greenville, South Carolina, he said, “You’re not free if your reproductive choices are being dictated by male politicians in Washington.”

Abortion politics in Buttigieg’s home state are complex. Historically, Indiana residents have been somewhat more conservative on the issue than the average American — in a 2014 Pew poll, 43 percent of Indiana residents thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 53 percent of people nationwide. And legislators in Indiana have passed a number of new restrictions on abortion in recent years, both during and after the governorship of Mike Pence, a vocal abortion opponent.

But those laws haven’t always been popular — a 2016 poll found that a majority of Indiana residents opposed a bill signed by Gov. Pence that year banning abortion based on the detection of fetal abnormalities. And in 2018, 47 percent of Indiana residents said they would oppose a ban on in their state, while 38 percent said they would support it.

In general, the responses of Indiana residents may reflect something larger about American politics — Americans’ views on abortion rights are more complex and nuanced than labels like “pro-life” or “pro-choice” would suggest.

Part of Buttigieg’s pitch to Americans has always been that he can cut through Washington polarization by talking to Americans about what really matters to them.

“The show in Washington right now is exhausting,” he said in a video announcing his presidential candidacy. “It’s got to end.”

And as Vox’s Matt Yglesias has noted, part of the backbone of Buttigieg’s campaign is the idea that the local politics of South Bend “illustrate a set of issues impacting a much broader range of communities.” The battle over the WWHA clinic is clearly one of those local issues that has national significance — especially in a time when abortion laws are receiving intense national attention and the Supreme Court may be poised to reconsider Roe v. Wade.

Buttigieg’s history with the WWHA controversy shows he’s capable of mediating between groups with very different positions on abortion, at least at the local level. But Wednesday’s lawsuit is a reminder that even in South Bend, the debate is far from over. And if Buttigieg hopes to be president, he’ll have to engage with it on a national level, where the debate around abortion rights is, in some ways, more heated than ever — and where satisfying both sides might not be possible.

Update: This story has been updated with comments from Jackie Appleman, executive director of St. Joseph County Right to Life.

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