Vice President Mike Pence has kept a low profile for much of the Trump administration.
Known for good manners and a distaste for negative campaigning, he has often faded into the background behind a president famous for bombastic rants and verbal abuse. But with Trump’s activities curtailed due to his Covid-19 diagnosis, Pence has been thrust into the spotlight. Now he’ll take the stage at the vice presidential debate on Wednesday with questions swirling around what kind of president he’d be if forced to take over for Trump, whether temporarily or permanently.
But we already have answers to a lot of those questions. Though Pence may be quieter than Trump, he’s actually shown far more commitment to rolling back both abortion rights and protections for LGBTQ Americans. In fact, many of the administration’s actions in these areas appear to have been driven by Pence. (The White House did not respond to Vox’s request for comment on this story.)
“We have been acutely aware of and gravely concerned about Mike Pence for quite some time,” David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, which works on behalf of Black LBGTQ people, told Vox.
Indeed, while Trump has vacillated on social issues during his career in the public eye, Pence has never wavered: From his time in Congress to his years in the White House, he’s maintained a laser-like focus on issues of paramount importance to Christian conservatives — most notably abortion restrictions and “religious freedom” protections that essentially permit discrimination against LGBTQ people.
If Pence were to become president, these issues would likely take center stage like never before.
Social conservatism, influenced by Christianity, has been a driving force for Pence from the beginning
Pence’s Christian faith has long been core to his public image. Raised Catholic, he converted to evangelical Christianity in college and has described himself in interviews as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” as the New York Times reported in 2016.
In his political career, that has meant a singular focus on a particular strand of social conservatism, with opposition to abortion one of its core tenets. Starting from his time in Congress, where he served from 2001 to 2013, Pence was in many ways the architect of contemporary Republican attempts to weaken Planned Parenthood by restricting its access to government funding. The idea “sort of originated with him,” Mary Alice Carter, senior adviser at Equity Forward, a reproductive rights watchdog group, told Vox.
As a member of Congress, beginning in 2007 Pence repeatedly proposed bills to cut Planned Parenthood funding, with one amendment finally passing the House in 2011.
Though the bill did not pass the Senate, the strategy of defunding Planned Parenthood spread to the states, where it has now become common. Texas, for example, began cutting family-planning funding in 2011 in an effort to target Planned Parenthood — as a result, one in four family-planning clinics in the state, many of which were not even operated by Planned Parenthood, closed. Such efforts at the state level were a preview of what would happen nationally with Pence as vice president.
When Pence was elected governor of Indiana in 2013, he remained an enthusiastic opponent of abortion. In 2016, for example, he signed what was one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country at the time, mandating an ultrasound and 18-hour waiting period and banning the procedure for reasons of fetal sex, race, or a diagnosis of Down syndrome, among many other restrictions.
“I sign this legislation with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers and families,” Pence said in a statement at the time.
As governor, Pence would face some of the consequences of his strategy to reduce Planned Parenthood’s funding. In 2013, his first year in office, the only Planned Parenthood in Scott County, Indiana, closed its doors due to budget cuts. The clinic also happened to be the county’s only HIV testing center. Two years later, with an HIV outbreak growing in Scott County, residents had nowhere to get tested.
Because the outbreak was linked to injectable drug use, public health experts pressed Pence to establish a needle-exchange program. Finally, over two months after the epidemic was reported, Pence changed his mind — after praying on the issue.
But he refused to do more than a short-term program, saying, “I don’t believe effective anti-drug policy involves handing out drug paraphernalia.”
The influence of Pence’s religion was also evident in his policy positions regarding LGBTQ rights. As a member of the House’s Republican Study Committee in 2006, for example, he spoke out in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, arguing that “societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family.” In the same speech, he said banning gay couples from marrying was a way to enforce “God’s idea,” according to Time.
While in Congress, he also opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have banned workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He said the legislation “wages war on freedom of religion in the workplace.”
He continued to use such arguments around freedom of religion when he became governor. In March 2015, for example, in a private ceremony attended by religious leaders, he signed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which barred the state from infringing on residents’ religious liberty. The bill was one of several proposed by conservative state legislators around the country in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states and in anticipation of a Supreme Court decision on the issue, as the New York Times reported at the time. (Indeed, the Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage in the landmark 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges.)
Pence cast the measure as necessary to protect the rights of religious residents, but LGBTQ rights groups and others cautioned it could be used to protect businesses that discriminated against LGBTQ customers or employees. Indeed, many supporters of the law said they hoped it would protect wedding vendors who refused service to same-sex couples, according to the Times.
One Indiana restaurant owner told a local radio station he had discriminated against same-sex couples in the past and was “looking forward to getting the governor’s explicit permission to keep doing so,” Mediaite reported at the time. “We don’t want to have this in our place of business, it’s just not right,” the restaurant owner said.
Pence didn’t help matters when he failed to directly answer questions about the law in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. When the host asked Pence if he thought it should be legal in Indiana to discriminate against gay people, Pence responded:
What I am for is protecting, with the highest standards in our courts, the religious liberty of Hoosiers. I signed the bill, we’re going to continue to explain it to people who don’t understand it, and if possible, we will find a way to amplify what this bill really is in the legislative process. But I stand by this law.
But business leaders were critical of the law, and the NCAA, headquartered in Indiana, threatened to stop holding events there unless it was changed. Ultimately, Pence signed an amended version that said businesses could not use the law to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
However, many said the clarification was insufficient. And overall, many LGBTQ rights advocates say Pence’s record is clear: In a letter to USA Today’s Susan Page, who will moderate the vice presidential debate on Wednesday, a number of LBGTQ organizations — including the National Black Justice Coalition — urged Page to press Pence on LGBTQ issues. “As Governor of Indiana, Pence led the charge to weaken LGBTQ protections and demonize and dehumanize our community,” the letter states.
Pence has been a big influence on the Trump administration when it comes to LGBTQ rights and abortion
When Pence became vice president in 2017, he suddenly had a much bigger charge to lead. Despite periodic attempts to appear religious, Trump seems to have little personal interest in the issues many social conservatives care about — in a 1999 interview, for example, he described himself as “very pro-choice.”
That left a vacuum for Pence to fill with his own views.
Shortly after he took office, Pence became the first vice president to speak at the March for Life, the country’s largest anti-abortion rally. “Because of all of you and the many thousands who stand with us in marches like this all across the nation, life is winning again in America,” he told the crowd in January 2017.
In the months and years that followed, Pence helped shepherd many of his Indiana associates into high-profile roles in the Trump administration, Equity Forward’s Carter noted — including key positions shaping policies around reproductive health and LGBTQ rights. Seema Verma, for example, who was confirmed administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in 2017, had previously been in charge of remaking Indiana’s state Medicaid program during Pence’s time as governor. And Alex Azar, who became secretary of health and human services in 2018, was an executive at the Indiana-based pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly when Pence was governor.
Under the leadership of Verma, Azar, and others, the Trump administration has made restricting abortion access and stripping funding from Planned Parenthood a nationwide policy. In 2019, for example, the administration finalized a rule barring recipients of Title X family-planning funds from not only performing abortions but also referring patients to other providers. That resulted in the exit of Planned Parenthood and a number of other clinics from the Title X program, as well as an estimated 46 percent reduction in the program’s ability to provide contraception to low-income and other underserved patients.
In a January 2020 statement on the March for Life, Azar boasted that the HHS “took numerous actions in 2019 to protect life by enforcing the laws on the books, like ensuring Title X dollars aren’t subsidizing the abortion industry” and said it was “proud to be ‘the Department of Life.’”
“What we’ve seen is the ideology of Mike Pence showing up across the board all over HHS,” Carter said.
That ideology has also impacted the administration’s policies on LGBTQ rights. Since 2017, the Trump administration has launched a veritable onslaught of attacks on the freedoms of queer and trans people, as Katelyn Burns has written for Vox. The White House has banned trans people from serving in the military, rolled back protections for trans students in schools, and issued a rule allowing doctors and insurance companies to refuse care to LGBTQ people, among many other actions.
Pence has been a driving force behind much of this, many say. Though Trump has a long history of making racist and xenophobic statements, he’s focused less on LGBTQ Americans specifically, the National Black Justice Coalition’s Johns noted. Pence, meanwhile, has been involved in rolling back protections for LGBTQ people since his time in Indiana. Today, Pence “remains very active in this administration” and continues to “make more difficult the lives of members of the communities that I’m a part of and I advocate for,” Johns said.
With the vice presidential debate approaching at a time when the president’s health remains uncertain, there’s been a renewed focus on Pence’s record and what he might be like in charge of the country. “This is the first debate we’ve ever had in the shadow of a possible presidential succession or inability crisis,” Joel K. Goldstein, emeritus professor of law at Saint Louis University, told Vox. For Pence, that means viewers will be asking, “Is he presidential?”
It’s likely Pence would be more “presidential,” at least in a superficial sense, than Trump. “He’s not going to be calling Sen. Warren ‘Pocahontas,’” Goldstein said. “The rhetoric of politics would be very different.”
But when it comes to the content of policy, we’ve already seen what a Pence administration would look like: a concerted effort to advance the views of a subset of religious conservatives, perhaps at the expense of LGBTQ Americans and anyone who needs reproductive health care.
With a strong conservative majority on the Supreme Court if nominee Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed, Pence might have even more leeway than he’s had under Trump to make the priorities of America’s religious right a reality. In fact, the biggest change under a President Pence could be a more single-minded focus to pursue the goals of restricting abortion and LGBTQ rights, freed from the shifting and chaotic attentions of Trump.
When it comes to a possible Pence presidency, “the biggest difference — and the nightmare — would be fewer distractions,” Johns said.