SACRAMENTO, California — Indiana followed me across the country.
Most places I stopped as I meandered my way to the West Coast, people asked what was going on in my home state.
A woman at a bookstore in Iowa City says she had been getting action alerts and updates about big doings in the Hoosier State from her women’s rights groups. A guy at a restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska, asks why everyone seems to be so upset in Indiana. At a gastropub in Salt Lake City, the young server wants to know how ugly the fight over abortion is going to get in Indiana.
That one is easy to answer: About as ugly as it’s going to get everywhere in America.
Much of what drives the interest in Indiana has been national news coverage.
Several of the cable nightly news programs have featured stories on the Indiana General Assembly’s special session. The pieces have been standard fare for national looks at local or regional upheaval — quick dives into the issue, sound bites from both sides, video of people protesting and then a fast transition to the next story.
But it’s put Indiana back in the nation’s eye, and not necessarily in a good way. The tumult has brought back echoes.
Years ago, when Indiana made itself into something resembling a national and international joke and pariah with the brouhaha over the ill-named Religious Freedom Restoration Act, my family and I traveled to the Pacific Northwest and then ventured into British Columbia on a vacation.
RFRA in its original form allowed Hoosier businesses to discriminate against gay people. Hoosier lawmakers had been warned by Indiana-based businesses that the measure was going to backfire on the state, but the legislators didn’t listen.
Backfire it did. Indiana became the world’s poster child for intolerance and bigotry.
Many businesses banned travel to and threatened to stop working with longtime trading partners in Indiana. Companies based in Indiana threatened to leave if RFRA wasn’t reversed or fixed.
As the RFRA fire raged, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence decided that the best way to deal with the problem was to pour gasoline on it. He went on a national news program and argued, stammering all the way, that the real problem was that social conservatives who wanted to shun gay people weren’t being treated with tolerance.
While all this was going on, everywhere my family and I went in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia we were asked what the heck was going on back home.
I remember kayaking in the waters just off Victoria and having the guide inquire, once he learned we were Hoosiers, what had possessed Indiana to go suddenly insane.
This time around, the questioning isn’t so pronounced or pointed.
In part, that’s because the abortion wars will be coming to just about every red state in the union at some point. But it’s also because Hoosier leaders seem to have learned a thing or two from the RFRA disaster.
When the U.S. Supreme Court first overruled Roe v. Wade, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and other Republican heavyweights made chest-thumping noises about not having red lines when it came to banning all abortions.
But then business leaders began talking quietly with GOP officeholders about the risks of alienating the female half of the state’s population and workforce — and all those who are the women’s allies. Polling confirmed that there was little appetite among Hoosier voters for an outright ban on abortion.
The rhetoric cooled. As the special session approached, I couldn’t help but notice that Indiana Senate Republicans were taking pains to emphasize all the ways their measure wouldn’t affect a woman’s right to end an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy. They said their bill wouldn’t outlaw morning-after pills or many other things.
Will that be enough to quell the storm? Probably not.
But it served to emphasize the ways this Hoosier foray into the national spotlight is different than the last one.
With RFRA, we were seen as an outlier, a last bastion of bigotry while the world and nation were moving toward acceptance. Now, we Hoosiers are just a preview of coming attractions.