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. Yes, he’s a Democrat — a real, true-believing, progressively minded one. And yes, he opposes legal abortion.
In his view, that’s not a bug in his political profile, but a feature. Here’s how Edwards once described the secret to his improbable win over then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, despite the state’s Republican leanings.
“If you’re not pro-life and if you’re not pro-Second Amendment, too many people in Louisiana will not hear the rest of your message,” he said. “And so you can be 100% in sync with them, but they’re never going to support you. And it just so happens that I am pro-life; I am pro-Second Amendment. I’m very populist in some ways as well. And that message was successful.”
And so we have a governor who backs LGBTQ equality, who expanded Medicaid and has fought for a higher minimum wage and pay equity for women — but who is also poised to sign a draconian anti-abortion bill that would ban the procedure before many women even know they’re pregnant, that would criminalize doctors, and that would force victims of rape or incest to carry any pregnancies that result from the assault to term. The only exceptions in the so-called fetal heartbeat bill by state Sen. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, are for pregnancies that are medically not viable and to “prevent the death of a pregnant woman or to prevent a serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.” The bill will be considered by the House this week after a lopsided 31-5 Senate vote.
It’s easy to understand the politics of Edwards’ stand. Louisianans oppose abortion at higher rates than Americans at large, and he surely did need to provide a cultural comfort level to win in 2015. And it’s not as if his own party gives him cover. The chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans, is an abortion rights proponent. But between Milkovich and state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, who has authored an anti-abortion constitutional amendment that will likely appear on the fall ballot, some of the state’s most vocal opponents are fellow Democrats.
It’s also not hard to understand where he comes from personally. Edwards is Catholic, and he and his wife Donna talk openly about their doctor’s long-ago recommendation that they terminate a pregnancy due to a spina bifida diagnosis. They never considered it, and their daughter, now a married college graduate, was featured in a memorable television ad on the subject.
I don’t think anybody would question their decision. I certainly don’t. But I’m also glad that they were able to make it without having to maneuver around anyone else’s politics.
Until now, Edwards has been able to pull off this tricky balance, to keep the support of Democrats who back abortion rights while also holding firm. Louisiana has systematically rolled back access, but the overall right to abortion was protected by Roe v. Wade, so the stakes weren’t quite so high.
They are now that Brett Kavanaugh has replaced Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court and abortion rights could be severely restricted. Now that the Milkovich bill, which relies on a similar Mississippi measure being upheld, could become reality.
And it’s hard to believe that the governor doesn’t get what’s at stake for the women faced with these difficult choices. On issue after issue, he’s made it clear that he empathizes with moms who have to take care of their families despite living on the economic margins, with people who struggle to get access to adequate health care, with women who seek equality in the workplace. It’s also obvious that he gets the economic implications of appearing unwelcoming. He, after all, proudly welcomed the NBA All-Star game to New Orleans after it fled Charlotte due to North Carolina’s mean-spirited bathroom bill targeting transgender people.
Edwards is ready to sign the bill anyway, maybe because he wants to or maybe because he thinks he has to. He’s explaining it away by saying what he’s always said — that he is who he is and has never pretended otherwise.
It just rings kind of hollow these days.