EVANSVILLE − A local lawmaker was at the forefront of the Indiana General Assembly’s recent abortion debate, and she now faces re-election challenges from the ideological left and right.
Rep. Wendy McNamara, a Republican who’s represented District 76 the last 12 years, carried the House version of Senate Bill 1, the legislation that became law following a special session. It imposes a near-total ban on abortion, and as Gov. Eric Holcomb penned his signature, McNamara said the bill “makes Indiana one of the most pro-life states in the nation.”
Seeking a seventh term, McNamara’s opposed by Democrat Katherine Rybak, who supports abortion rights, as well as self-described “independent conservative” Cheryl Batteiger-Smith, who feels the near-total ban wasn’t enough.
Rybak and Batteiger-Smith are seeking political office for the first time.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this year ending federal protection of abortion rights sent the issue back to the states, and Indiana was among the first to pass its own restrictions.
The legislation that became law was aimed at protecting women and babies, McNamara said upon its passage. It prohibits abortion at any stage of gestation except in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal anomalies or when the pregnant person’s life is at risk.
Where the candidates stand on abortion
McNamara, a career public school official whose current role is director of the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. Early College High School program, declined in an interview to elaborate on the legislation she sponsored. She also declined to discuss her viewpoint on abortion.
The reason, McNamara said, is because the bill is being challenged in court by backers of abortion rights. She cited legal counsel’s advice in turning away questions. She was among the elected officials who signed in at the recent Right to Life of Southwest Indiana banquet, attended by 2,400 people.
Rybak and Batteiger-Smith, meanwhile, were not shy about airing their views on the subject.
“I say shame on her (McNamara) for sponsoring that bill,” said Rybak, a retired attorney who still does family mediation and other legal work. “I think abortion is a very complicated issue. Every person’s situation is different, and I don’t think a bunch of politicians in Indianapolis should be making that decision for all of the women in Indiana.
“The other things I don’t like about the bill are, if your goal is to protect the life and health of the mother, you need to be more expansive about it. For one thing, they exclude mental health. What is that all about?” Rybak said. “… I think of one very compelling mental health issue that dovetails with abortion, and that is someone with a severe mental illness who’s taking a medication that you can’t take during pregnancy. So are we going to make those folks go off their medication and become sicker so they can carry this baby to term?”
Rybak said instances of domestic violence are another reason abortion should remain legal. She said the exceptions language in the new law is vague. That will leave doctors wondering what they can and can’t do to assist a pregnant person in a health crisis, for fear of prosecution.
“The thing this legislation doesn’t recognize is how fragile the trajectory of some women is,” Rybak said. ” … When somebody says people are just having abortion for convenience, I say no. There are life circumstances that need to be considered.”
Batteiger-Smith, who is running as an independent, is on the other end of the policy spectrum.
A former deputy assessor in Posey County and a former vice chair of that area’s Republican party, Batteiger-Smith wants a full ban in Indiana with no exception for rape, incest or any type of health issue.
She said abortion is the reason she’s running for state representative. She would have run as a Republican, she said, but the Supreme Court’s ruling happened after the filing deadline, so she collected enough signatures to join the race as an independent candidate.
“God put it in my heart instantly that I needed to be a voice for the unborn, and I didn’t feel we had that representation in Southern Indiana,” said Batteiger-Smith, who has worked in an Evansville insurance office for many years and was an Indiana Republican Convention delegate this year.
If a pregnancy occurs in an act of rape or incest, “I still don’t think the baby should have to die for the father’s sin,” Batteiger-Smith said. “A baby is a baby and should have the right to live.”
About House District 76
The trio is running in District 76, encompassing all of Posey County and swaths of western and northern Vanderburgh County. It includes the University of Southern Indiana campus.
The district was tweaked slightly in a redistricting approved in 2020, and this is the first election with the new map.
McNamara captured 64% of the vote in 2020 in defeating Democrat Steve Folz for her sixth term. Two years earlier, she received 55% in a win over Folz.