Long a bastion of anti-abortion sentiments, Louisiana is part of a wave of red states passing some of the most restrictive abortion laws in years.
Republican Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey last week signed legislation that would ban most all abortions in that state.
Ohio and Georgia are among several states that passed bills to forbid the pregnancy ending procedure once the heartbeat of a fetus is detected, usually at six weeks and often before women are aware they are pregnant. Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Friday became the latest governor to sign a “fetal heartbeat” law.
Louisiana legislators on Tuesday are almost certain to pass similar “fetal heartbeat” legislation. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Catholic U.S. Army veteran and the only Democratic chief executive in the South, said he most likely will sign that bill into law.
Also on tap for a final vote next week in the Louisiana House is a measure that would ask voters statewide if they want to add a line to the state’s Constitution saying it does not provide for abortions or abortion funding. Should the new conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v Wade, which has protected a woman’s right to an abortion for the past 46 years, the power to decide whether abortions can take place in a particular state returns to that state. Edwards doesn't have to sign that bill to get the issue on the Oct. 12 ballot.
With bipartisan support Louisiana already has passed significant hurdles to obtaining an abortion. But the procedure is still legal and accessible at three clinics in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport. Barring changes from the U.S. Supreme Court that could take months or years, that access is likely to endure.
Is Louisiana the next Alabama or Missouri when it comes to the right to an abortion?
“Abortion is still legal in Louisiana, and every other state where these pre-viability bans have been introduced," said Katie Caldwell, clinic coordinator at the abortion clinics in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. “Our clinics will continue to operate, even if these (latest) restrictions go into effect.”
Patients have been calling the clinics to inquire whether abortion is still legal and whether they’ll be able to come in for appointments, Caldwell said – a “direct result” of restrictive abortion legislation and national media attention on them.
Playing the long game
Galvanized by the prospect that President Donald Trump’s new appointees will tilt the Supreme Court in their favor, anti-abortion groups and lawmakers throughout the South and Midwest are passing laws aimed at directly challenging Roe v. Wade – like Alabama's new ban.
But bills like “fetal heartbeat” are aimed at making abortions more difficult to obtain, rather than banning the practice outright.
Advocacy groups and clinics swiftly filed lawsuits blocking the laws.
During his recent call-in radio show, “Ask the Governor,” Edwards fielded several questions about his stance on the proposed “fetal heartbeat” legislation, Senate Bill 184.
“It is my expectation the bill will come to my desk and I will sign it,” he said. “That is consistent with my position on these issues, really for a lifetime, but in eight years as a legislator and four years as governor.”
Edwards also noted the courts will have the last say.
Louisiana’s “fetal heartbeat” measure is written specifically to not go into effect immediately. Hoping to avoid more costly litigation – Louisiana is already defending more than 30 laws and hundreds of regulations – lawmakers amended SB184 go into effect only if the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the Mississippi law.
"Ladies and gentlemen, that is a hop and a skip from the Handmaid’s Tale,” State Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, said.
“There’s no reason for us to spend our resources right now,” Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill told lawmakers in a recent committee hearing.
One of the challenges is to a 2014 Louisiana law. The U.S. Supreme Court in coming months could hear and decide the constitutionality of the law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, has ruled that, in Louisiana at least, that the distance patients would have to travel, if nearby abortion physicians are unable to find a hospital willing to give them admitting privileges, is not too onerous of a hurdle to obtaining an abortion.
It’s just one of many laws restricting access to the clinics.
Already, unless a woman lives near the state’s three largest cities, they must drive sometimes hours to get the mandatory counseling, then the procedure 24 hours later, said Amy Irvin, executive director of New Orleans Abortion Fund.
“As we’ve said for many years now these restrictions impede access,” Irvin said. “For many women they impose too much of a burden.”
Other lawsuits have challenged a mandatory three-day waiting period for getting abortions and a decision by former Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration to yank funding for Planned Parenthood following the release of heavily-edited videos that purportedly show Planned Parenthood staffers talking about the sale of fetal tissue.
Mississippi’s “fetal heartbeat” law, on which Louisiana’s proposal relies, was temporarily blocked by a federal judge Friday.
“Here we go again,” wrote U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, who held last year that the state’s 15-week ban was unconstitutional. “Mississippi has passed another law banning abortions prior to viability.”
Reeves was nominated by Democratic President Barack Obama and sits in Jackson, Miss. Last year, he found the law banned a legally allowed procedure at 15 weeks, which is before a fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 23 or 24 weeks.
Louisiana is likely to pass its own so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill that will only go into effect if courts uphold the Mississippi law.
Benjamin Clapper, the executive director of the Metairie-based anti-abortion group Louisiana Right to Life, said most of the practical impacts of the high-profile “fetal heartbeat” bill in Louisiana, and the constitutional amendment, “all depends on the courts.”
Clapper argues it should be a “state’s choice” to offer access to abortion. If Roe v Wade is overturned, the state already has a 2006 law on the books that would ban abortions.
The constitutional amendment – House Bill 425, which is up for a final vote on Wednesday – is “first and foremost a statement of principle,” Clapper said. The amendment would say the state Constitution does not protect a right to abortion or require funding for abortion.
The amendment, if approved by voters this fall, would short circuit court arguments that because the Constitution was silent on the issue, abortions are legally allowable regardless of the hurdles to access approved by a Legislature, a stance that prevailed most recently in Kansas.
Even as state lawmakers overwhelmingly approve abortion restrictions, not everyone agrees.
On the corner of Poydras Street and St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans on Wednesday, about 200 people hoisted handmade signs in the air, chanting “My body! My Choice!”
Katrina Rogers, who attended the rally, said lawmakers’ stance doesn’t consider the struggles of the working poor who cannot afford to care for more children. Banning abortions would only spark more dangerous and clandestine operations.
“We want full control of our bodies. And goddamn it, we’re not asking.”
“We know that Roe v Wade was not the beginning of abortion in America, and we know the end of Roe v Wade will not be the end of abortion in Louisiana,” Rogers said.
Abortion rights advocates have also held several protests at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge to voice their outrage at the laws. Earlier this month, 10 abortion rights protesters were arrested on misdemeanor charges of criminal damage to property and disturbing the peace before being released on summons.
Ellie Schilling, a lawyer representing abortion providers who routinely testifies at the Capitol, pointed to several less high-profile bills also making their way through the process that add to Louisiana’s substantial body of law that she says make it more difficult for clinics to operate.
House Bill 484 by state Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, would require clinics to keep records for much longer and is scheduled Monday for a vote in the Senate. House Bill 133 by Rep. Frank Hoffman, R-West Monroe, would change how the state regulates medically-induced abortions and is scheduled for a Senate vote on Wednesday. Schilling said HB133, should it pass and only five legislators have voted against it, would require women to get the drug from abortion clinics instead of OB-GYNs.
“Every year more restrictions are added and it’s certainly what has caused the clinics to dwindle to only three,” Schilling said. The number of clinics dropped from seven a decade ago and the number of abortions decreased from 10,211 in 2014 to 8,076 in 2017, according the Louisiana Department of Health.
Louisiana residents are generally more opposed to abortion than people nationally, according to surveys. A 2016 poll from LSU’s Public Policy Research lab found about 55% in Louisiana think abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while 40% think it should be legal in most or all cases. Nationally, Gallup polls show about half are against abortion, in most cases, and 18% believe abortions should be illegal.
But in Louisiana more than 80% support some restrictions on access to abortions, only a quarter think it should be illegal in all cases, the LSU poll found.
Gov. Edwards’ stance has been clear for years. One of his first ads in the 2015 gubernatorial campaign highlighted the decision he and his wife made not to abort their first child. As a state representative Edwards supported anti-abortion legislation and voted for the bill that would require admitting privileges for doctors performing abortions.
His position is squarely at odds with his national party’s approach to abortion rights. Stacey Abrams, a rising star in the Democratic Party after narrowly losing Georgia’s governorship, said last week she was “a little annoyed with the governor of Louisiana,” the New York Times reported.
But Edwards is not out-of-step with many Louisiana Democrats.
The “fetal heartbeat” bill is being carried by state Sen. John Milkovich, a Shreveport Democrat who has routinely brought access to abortion restrictions. State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, is carrying the constitutional amendment and was the chief sponsor in 2014 of the measure that would require admitting privileges.
The wider world, and even some Louisianans who weren’t paying attention, seem to just be discovering a basic truth about Gov. John Bel Edwards…
When asked whether the national outcry against anti-abortion efforts in Louisiana will change the national party’s support for Edwards as he runs reelection this fall, the Democratic Governors Association communications director David Turner pointed to the group’s past statements, which said Edwards’ race is the organization’s top priority.
The only incumbent Democratic governor in the Deep South, Edwards is running for re-election this year against Congressman Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, both Republicans. Both of those candidates also say they support the constitutional amendment and “fetal heartbeat” bill.
Advocate staff writer Jessica Williams and the Associated Press contributed to this report.