During the past three legislative sessions, seven Democrats missed more than half of the votes on abortion, an issue fraught with political peril for some Democrats in this anti-abortion state.
Two Democrats from New Orleans — state Rep. Neil Abramson and state Rep. Gary Carter Jr. — missed 15 of the 17 votes taken during the 2016, 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, according to a score card compiled by Louisiana Right to Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion group.
Both men said the press of other legislative business caused them to miss the abortion-related votes.
The other five who have missed at least half of the votes are state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans; state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans; state Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport; state Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe; and state Rep. Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace.
Benjamin Clapper, the group’s executive director, has a simple explanation for the missed votes.
“It’s clear that a number of legislators choose not to vote on bills that will be scored by Louisiana Right to Life,” he said. “As we know, it’s one thing for an elected official to say how they stand on an issue. It’s another thing to see how they vote. An elected official’s voting record is the truest way to see how they stand on an issue.”
No Republicans missed at least half of the 17 votes, according to the group’s score card.
Five of the seven Democrats did not vote on the most controversial abortion bill during the 2018 legislative session, Senate Bill 181, which would ban abortions after 15 weeks. That bill passed the House 81-9 with 14 abstentions and the Senate 24-1 with 14 abstentions. Current Louisiana law prohibits abortions after 20 weeks.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed the 15-week bill into law, but it will take effect only if a federal court upholds a similar Mississippi law under legal challenge by abortion rights groups that label it as "cruel" and "unconstitutional." Both measures would impose the strictest bans in the country.
The passage of the bill reflects how Louisiana legislators in recent years have repeatedly approved laws favored by Louisiana Right to Life and other anti-abortion groups.
Louisiana has the fourth best anti-abortion legal framework in the country, according to a state-by-state ranking by Americans United for Life, a Virginia-based group.
Edwards, a devout Catholic, had a perfect record of voting with Louisiana Right to Life during his eight years as a state House member. His anti-abortion stance helped make him acceptable to conservative voters when he was elected governor in 2015 and became the only Democrat to hold statewide office.
Other Democrats — including state Rep. Katrina Jackson from Monroe and state Sen. Regina Barrow from Baton Rouge — also are known for their anti-abortion views. A Democrat from Shreveport, John Milkovich, sponsored the 15-week ban bill.
Their anti-abortion views put them at odds with the Democratic Party nationally and the party’s recent presidential candidates.
Some Democrats, however, don’t want to anger Democrats who support abortion rights, a key constituency, or conservative voters who do not support abortion, whose support may be necessary in some elections, said Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge pollster and political consultant. He said he is not surprised that the legislators who have missed the abortion votes are Democrats.
“This is a divisive social issue,” said Pinsonat. “They don’t want to tilt one way or the other so they won’t be attacked on their voting record. They see it as a no-win issue. They believe it is better to be charged with not voting versus voting a particular way.”
Pinsonat said his comments apply to white and black Democrats but are especially relevant for the white lawmakers. “In the black community, it’s an issue, but it’s not a defining issue,” he said.
Voting pro-life is especially important for Republican candidates, Pinsonat said, noting that 18 to 22 percent of the electorate consists of single-issue, anti-abortion voters.
The votes missed by Abramson include this year’s measure banning abortion after 15 weeks.
He also didn’t vote on a 2016 measure prohibiting entities that perform abortions from receiving public dollars for other purposes. It was widely seen as targeting Planned Parenthood, which provides health care to low-income women but has not yet won approval to perform abortions in Louisiana. Carter also missed the vote.
Abramson and Carter also didn’t vote in 2016 on the "Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Act" measure. Louisiana became the sixth state in the nation to pass the law.
Abramson chairs the Ways and Means Committee, which meant that in 2017 he was especially busy handling tax legislation. (Tax bills in 2016 and 2018 were handled in special sessions where there were no votes on abortion.) In 2018, Abramson has begun serving as the floor leader for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who took office four weeks ago.
Abramson also missed 13 of 15 abortion votes scored by Louisiana Right to Life during the previous legislative term, from 2012 to 2015, when he chaired the Civil Law and Procedure Committee.
In a 2016 interview, Abramson declined to state his views on abortion. “That’s a broad question,” he said when asked whether he supported women having the right to an abortion.
“I’m not going to get into the details of all of this,” he said when asked whether he opposed abortion save in the cases of limited exceptions, a common Republican position.
For this article, Abramson declined to answer questions about his position on abortion and his voting record on the issue, saying The Advocate has not treated him fairly in the past and has inaccurately characterized his views.
Carter said he has not intentionally missed abortion votes and said his position on the issue is clear: “I support women having the right to choose as well as to be able to make their own decisions about their health and their bodies,” he said.
Carter said he would have voted against the 15-week abortion ban.
Norton missed 12 of the 17 abortion votes. She said she was probably tending to other business during those votes.
Asked for her views on abortion, she initially said she didn’t have an opinion. But when pressed, she said, “I don’t think someone else should be able to tell them (women) how to do it, bearing a child or not bearing a child.” She said she did not know how she would have voted on the 15-week abortion ban.
Gaines missed nine of the 17 abortion votes. He said he thought it was just “coincidental.” Gaines described himself as pro-choice and said he would have voted against the 15-week ban.
Hunter also missed nine of the 17 abortion votes and attributed this to working on other legislative matters elsewhere.
“I’m not one of those squatters — people who sit in the chamber and don’t vote,” he said.
Asked for his views on abortion, Hunter said, “I believe it’s a personal decision between you and your God.” He voted against the 15-week ban.
Peterson, who also voted against the 15-week ban, missed nine of 17 abortion votes. Leger was absent on that bill and overall missed 13 of the 17. Neither responded to text requests for interviews.