As lawmakers across the South and Midwest go on an anti-abortion legislating spree — led by an Alabama law that would represent a near-total ban on abortions — Louisiana lawmakers are advancing their own slate of restrictions that could create some of the strictest laws in the country with help from the courts.
The effort to pass new restrictions in Louisiana comes as the state is already defending a host of abortion laws and regulations in court. That includes a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court over a law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, which could potentially shutter the state’s abortion clinics.
Taken together, the efforts in Louisiana amount to a steady eroding of access to abortion in the state, critics of the laws say. Michelle Erenberg, executive director of Lift Louisiana, said lawmakers and anti-abortion groups are using a judiciary that has been newly reshaped by the Trump administration as an opportunity to move the needle further toward outlawing abortion.
“They are basically throwing spaghetti at the wall,” Erenberg said of abortion laws that will almost certainly be litigated.
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Benjamin Clapper, head of the influential anti-abortion group Louisiana Right to Life, says the efforts are evidence Louisiana is pushing “just as strongly” as other states like Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama to “protect the unborn.” He pointed to the Louisiana admitting privilege law that is already pending before the high court.
The proposals making their way through the State Capitol this session include a high-profile ban on abortions after a heartbeat is detected, usually at around six weeks when many women don’t yet know they’re pregnant. That idea has made it into law in other states, and has the backing of Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
State Sen. John Milkovich, a Shreveport Democrat who has carried some of the most restrictive abortion bills in the Legislature, is pushing the so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill. In a committee hearing Wednesday, where he was backed by activists including a woman who spent time in prison for trying to burn down abortion clinics, Milkovich cited scripture and insisted it is a “scientific fact” that life begins at conception.
“Our U.S. Constitution does not provide a right of parents or the state to kill children,” Milkovich said.
Opponents said the measure was clearly unconstitutional and would effectively ban most abortions. They pointed to the more than $1 million the state has spent defending abortion laws in recent years, and chastised lawmakers for not putting an exemption for instances of rape and incest.
Members of the committee also questioned whether Clapper’s Louisiana Right to Life, which supported the measure, had a position on proposals to abolish the death penalty. Clapper said the group did not have a position on that, though he personally supports the effort to abolish capital punishment.
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The ban would only go into effect if a similar Mississippi law stands up to a court challenge. Lawmakers put that trigger in the bill in an effort to prevent Louisiana from entering into another potentially costly court case.
Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill said her office is already defending more than 30 laws and hundreds of regulations in three lawsuits filed by June Medical Services, including the one pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The other laws being challenged include a requirement that women wait three days before getting an abortion and a ban on a second-trimester abortion procedure.
Lawmakers this session also appear poised to change the state’s constitution to make clear the state does not provide a right to abortion or require funding for it. The move would codify the Legislature’s stance on abortion if the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade was overturned. The amendment would go to the voters for approval if lawmakers sign off on it.
Clapper said he also thinks it would help Louisiana's abortion laws stand up to state-level court challenges.
Two other abortion bills passed easily out of a Senate committee Wednesday morning, as they near final passage. One, by Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, would put new regulations on abortion clinics, requiring them to keep certain records as long as 30 years, in what Crews called an effort to combat human trafficking.
Another by state Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, would tack on regulations to medically-induced abortions, requiring patients to get the drugs from abortion clinics rather than providers like OB-GYNs.
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Ellie Schilling, a lawyer for reproductive health care providers who testified against the bills in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, criticized the measures as efforts to restrict access to abortion.
“It’s intended to make operating a clinic difficult and to dissuade new physicians and clinics from providing abortions,” she said of Crews’ bill.
The committee advanced both bills without objection Wednesday.
Louisiana lawmakers’ approach to abortion is a “multi-faceted” one, Erenberg said, aiming both at litigating the issue in the courts and legislating it in the State Capitol.
“It’s the cumulative impact,” Erenberg said. “It’s not so much any one piece of legislation that is going to be the nail in the coffin for clinics or the one insurmountable barrier for women. It’s the combination of all the logistical hurdles people have to overcome to keep their clinics open and for people who are pregnant and seeking an abortion to access that care.”
Alabama lawmakers, by comparison, approved the near-total ban on abortion this week in an effort to challenge the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision. The measure would make performing an abortion at any stage of pregnancy a felony, and is certain to face a legal challenge. Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill into law Wednesday.
Clapper, who supported all the abortion bills that came up in the Louisiana Legislature Wednesday, said the opponents always testify against abortion bills, even if they’re “common sense” regulations.
He also said states are tired of the Supreme Court’s longstanding precedent on abortion. The recent slew of anti-abortion bills are an indication that states are fed up and want the court to “wake up” to that.
With the “admitting privileges” case, Clapper said he hopes the new makeup of the court will uphold Louisiana’s law. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, both Trump appointees, were not on the bench in 2016 when the court deemed a similar Texas law unconstitutional. Both members recently voted against an emergency stay of Louisiana’s law.
The law currently remains on hold pending a decision.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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