By now, VP candidate Mike Pence's anti-LGBT attitudes are well documented, including signing a Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year, which allowed businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers based on their religious beliefs, and he's been adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage. There were protests from celebs and ordinary citizens alike after RFRA was signed, large corporations threatened to leave the state, and, according to The Advocate's Neal Broveman, Indiana lost $60 million in convention and tourism business in protest. But Pence's impact on the state's public health has been less widely reported.
If past is indeed prologue, than we would all do well to take a look at Mike Pence's tenure as governor of Indiana where cuts in Planned Parenthood and Medicaid led to an epidemic-sized HIV and hep C outbreak in a rural Austin, Indiana.
"There’s been a lot of speculation that the closing of Planned Parenthood clinics in Indiana that provided HIV testing and counseling played a role in increased HIV transmission," says Dr. Mary Ann Chiasson, of Public Health Solutions. "Also, implementing needle exchange took quite a while."
Chiasson's suspicions are buttressed by a New York Times story that seems to suggest the same outcome. His biggest blunder (an intentional decision) came when Scott County, Indiana, faced one of the biggest HIV outbreaks in the country directly correlated to opioid addiction and needle sharing among white injection drug users. In that case Pence doubled down on a strategy that found him obstructing needle exchange programs in the state. Pence eventually relented, but only by signing a bill that forces counties to ask permission to start a needle exchange.
Pence was also an early and vocal advocate for gutting Planned Parenthood funding in the state, another factor that contributed to an official state of emeregency being declared by the Centers for Disease Control when the outbreak increased by 80 percent within one month.
And we haven't even mentioned in the fact that Pence has gone on record as not knowing how condoms work. In 2002, after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told MTV viewers the that they should be using condoms, Pence appeared on Wolf Blitzer's CNN show to contradict him. Pence told Blitzer that abstinence is king, adding that "the other part is that, frankly, condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted diseases, and in that sense, Wolf, this was — the secretary of state maybe inadvertently misleading millions of young people and endangering lives. … But let's be clear, last year, the National Institute of Health, Wolf, and some 28 separate experts said at least a half dozen to 10 sexually transmitted diseases for which condom use has zero preventative value. The secretary of state is simply wrong." (For the record, what the NIH actually said in a 2001 report, according to New York magazine is that "condoms clearly prevented the spread of HIV and gonorrhea but there wasinsufficient evidence that condoms offered protection against human papillomavirus, chlamydia, syphilis, chancroid, trichomoniasis, and genital herpes. But it does not mean that they don't work; it means that more research is needed."
For many of us, especially those with chronic conditions, Pence's willful ignorance could be downright life-threatening. Dangerous rhetoric from the Religious Right is one thing. Dangerous rhetoric that bucks all data-driven evidence to the contrary, rhetoric that shows a shocking indifference towards public health issues, should scare us all.