DURING HIS LAST ELECTION, South Bend voters delivered resoundingly good news to Buttigieg: He was reelected mayor of the city in 2015 with 80 percent of the vote.
He’d won his first term in 2011 as a 29-year-old Oxford University graduate who had moved back to his hometown. He breezed to reelection in 2015, but turmoil struck six months into his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.
In June 2019, a white police officer in South Bend fatally shot a black robbery suspect. Sgt. Ryan O’Neill said Eric Logan didn’t heed his warning to drop a knife during their encounter. The suspect’s family questioned that account.
Though Buttigieg faced angry citizens in South Bend, he eventually rebounded on the campaign trail. Still, the racially charged incident fueled questions about whether the presidential hopeful could win over black voters on a national scale. In November, a Quinnipiac University poll reported Buttigieg’s dismal support among black voters in South Carolina: less than 1 percent.
As Buttigieg began to regain traction in some states, another tragedy gripped South Bend. In September, police in neighboring Illinois reported they discovered the remains of 2,246 unborn children in the home of Ulrich “George” Klopfer, a retired abortionist who had died earlier that month.
Klopfer had conducted abortions in South Bend for decades.
The scene was grisly: Police say they found the aborted infants’ remains in moldy boxes and Styrofoam coolers in Klopfer’s garage and car. On Sept. 19, officers raided the abortionist’s abandoned office on Ironwood Drive in South Bend. (They also searched offices he once operated in Fort Wayne and Gary.) Klopfer closed the South Bend business in 2016 after the state suspended his medical license for multiple violations at his center.
Police said they found a trove of medical records at the site, but no human remains.
Buttigieg doesn’t just assert Christian faith, he actively challenges Biblical orthodoxy.
On the same street, workers at two pro-life organizations were fielding phone calls from distressed women: The callers said they had gone to Klopfer for abortions in the past, and now wondered if he had crammed their children’s remains into his home.
“We were bombarded with calls,” says Jackie Appleman, executive director of St. Joseph County Right to Life. “I was shocked at how many wanted to know if their child was in his garage.” Jenny Hunsberger of the Women’s Care Center, a pregnancy resource center with a location on the same street, said women called their office with similar concerns.
Appleman said most of the callers expressed regret over their abortions and wanted to find out if the children’s remains could be identified for a proper burial: Were the bodies labeled? Could police conduct DNA tests?
“It was very emotional,” Appleman says. “And it was a concrete reminder of the horror of abortion.”
For a few days, Buttigieg didn’t mention the reports publicly. When a reporter asked, the mayor said the discovery was “extremely disturbing, and I think it’s important it be fully investigated.” He added: “I also hope it doesn’t get caught up in politics at time when women need access to healthcare.”
For most of his term, Buttigieg didn’t have to confront issues related to abortion. But in 2018, the Women’s Care Center announced plans to open a new pregnancy resource center on Lincoln Way. The location was next to a site slated for a new abortion business. The residential property would have to be rezoned, but Hunsberger said the center’s leaders thought it would be a simple process.
At first, they were right: The city’s common council approved the rezoning in April 2018. Buttigieg vetoed the plan. The mayor said he thought it was unhelpful to have the two groups on the same street. He also said officials from the abortion business claimed research shows violence and harassment increase when a pregnancy care center opens near an abortion business.
Hunsberger said she met with Buttigieg, and assured him the care center doesn’t mount protests or demonstrations. Instead, Hunsberger says the centers in South Bend serve the mothers of nearly two-thirds of the children born in South Bend. The organization offers pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and other forms of support and help until a child reaches five.
She said the conversation with Buttigieg was cordial, but the mayor vetoed the plan.
“It was very difficult,” she says. “We did not know what our next step would be.” A few days later, an unexpected offer surfaced. A property owner across the street from the planned abortion site said he would sell his land to the Women’s Care Center. No rezoning necessary.
Buttigieg didn’t interfere, and the center opened in July. Hunsberger said it’s bigger than what they could have opened at the other location. She’s thankful “something so good could come from something so hard.”
Meanwhile, Appleman says it was disappointing to see Buttigieg veto the original plan for a pro-life center, and to see his full-orbed support for abortion since declaring his presidential candidacy.
Buttigieg doesn’t favor restrictions on abortion, even after 24 weeks of pregnancy, and he dodged a New York Times survey question about whether pro-life Democrats have a place in the party. He favors repealing the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision that bars federal funding for abortions.
On the radio showThe Breakfast Club, as Buttigieg discussed the GOP and Christianity, he said: “Right now they hold everybody in line with this one piece of doctrine about abortion. … Then again, there are a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about life beginning with breath. And so even that is something that we can interpret differently.”
That might not be comforting for some of the women grieving their decisions to go to Klopfer for abortions. Officials with the Catholic dioceses of Fort Wayne–South Bend and Gary, Ind., have offered to bury the remains in cemeteries they operate, but Indiana’s attorney general said in December it would likely be difficult or impossible to identify the infants’ remains.
In Southlawn Cemetery in South Bend, a burial plot already exists for babies who died through miscarriage. At the site, a long marble bench is inscribed with a piece of Scripture that’s difficult to interpret differently than its plain reading: “Truly God has formed my inmost being and knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise God that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”