Why a New York-based law group is leading the charge to undo Indiana's abortion laws

Johnny Magdaleno
Indianapolis Star

Behind some of the biggest legal challenges to Indiana’s abortion laws in recent years is a crew of young lawyers from out of state who are trying, and succeeding, to unravel similar restrictions elsewhere in the U.S. Heartland.  

Indianapolis, meet The Lawyering Project, a law group based in Brooklyn that is women-led and donor-funded. The federal courthouse in downtown has become a recurring spot on the group’s judicial itinerary since 2018, when they began representing abortion provider Whole Woman’s Health in a suit challenging over a dozen of Indiana’s abortion laws that reached a climax this week.

Telemedicine ban and more struck down

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana judge Sarah Evans Barker struck down several Indiana laws and upheld several others in her Tuesday ruling on the lawsuit. Among those struck down were bans on telemedicine and laws saying only physicians, and not nurse practitioners, can perform certain kinds of abortion care. Among those upheld were laws requiring an ultrasound before an abortion, and that medication abortions meet FDA standards.

It was yet another big legal decision around Indiana's abortion codes in recent months. 

In June federal judge James Patrick Hanlon sided with Whole Woman’s Health and lawyers with The Lawyering Project and the American Civil Liberties Union in a separate lawsuit challenging a law that required doctors in Indiana to inform women undergoing medication abortions about a disputed treatment for potentially stopping such abortions. Hanlon issued a temporary injunction on that law until the lawsuit finishes its run through the courts. 

The Lawyering Project is also representing clients in a third ongoing abortion lawsuit in Indiana, challenging state provisions requiring abortion providers inter or cremate embryonic and fetal tissue after an abortion or miscarriage.

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"Donor-funded" means The Lawyering Project is doing all that work pro-bono for its clients. Who those donors are, however, they won’t say.  

“Similar to other non-profit organizations, the Lawyering Project values and respects the privacy of our donors and do not disclose their personal information,” a spokesperson for the organization told IndyStar when asked to describe their financial backers. 

Respect in the courtroom

In public, the Indiana Attorney General's Office flexes when presented with legal claims challenging the constitutionality of the state's abortion laws. “Taking a stand for life means facing down opponents who, in the name of ‘choice,’ are relentless in their efforts to eviscerate the rights of the unborn,” Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita said in a March statement, just before Whole Woman’s Health’s sweeping abortion challenge went to trial. (Rokita’s office declined to comment further for this article.) 

But inside the court, those "opponents" are respected. One afternoon in June, Judge Barker closed proceedings in the Whole Woman's Health trial with off-the-cuff praise for The Lawyering Project and the state’s attorneys. Both sides gave her hope about the future of law, she said. 

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A young state attorney approached Dipti Singh, senior counsel at The Lawyering Project and one of the lead lawyers in that case. “Pleasure to litigate against you,” he told her, extending his hand. It was probably the sweetest compliment a lawyer could pay another lawyer following a years-long and contentious case in which life and death are literally at stake. 

Why Indiana? 

But so much activity in Indiana raises questions about motivation. Why is a legal organization from the East Coast challenging abortion laws in a Republican-majority state, where voters have cast their support for pro-life policymakers time and time again? 

The same argument could also be made around separate abortion challenges The Lawyering Project's lawyers have represented in Minnesota and Texas. 

They're active here because the Constitution is party-blind and doesn't discriminate when it comes to states, senior counsel Rupali Sharma told IndyStar. Neither do past rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, like in the paramount case Roe v. Wade, which have protected the right to end a pregnancy.  

“They’re not lawsuits where anyone is trying to make money,” Sharma said. “The lawyers don’t make money, the patients don’t make money. What they’re really about are fundamental human rights.” 

The Lawyering Project agreed to take its three Indiana cases on after doing “a lot of work in Indiana to learn the landscape,” Sharma said. They worked with abortion providers to understand the impact that state laws have on women and clinics here.  

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“Indiana is just one of the worst states in terms of how difficult it makes it for people to make health care choices around pregnancy,” Sharma said.  

Or one of the best states, from the pro-life perspective. The non-profit Americans United for Life ranks Indiana the fifth most restrictive state when it comes to abortions. 

When Rokita was running for Indiana attorney general last year, he predicted Hoosiers would reject his Democrat opponent Jonathan Weinzapfel partly because, when it came to abortion, Weinzapfel’s views represented “a culture of death.” And he was right. Rokita glided into the attorney general’s office with a 17-percent lead over Weinzapfel when the polls closed last November. 

But recent mixed rulings in favor of clients represented by The Lawyering Project suggest that, at least from the court's perspective, some of Indiana's laws might not pass constitutional muster, making them viable targets for health care clients with lawyers hailing from any part of the country.

Call IndyStar courts reporter Johnny Magdaleno at 317-273-3188 or email him at jmagdaleno@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @IndyStarJohnny