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By Sam Karlin, The Advocate, May 29, 2019
Louisiana lawmakers have passed a bill that would ban abortions at about six weeks of pregnancy if upheld by the courts, sending it to the governor’s desk without exceptions for victims of rape and incest.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, said he will sign the bill into law.
Supporters of the so-called “fetal heartbeat” legislation defeated proposed changes that would have exempted victims of rape and incest from the abortion ban in a lengthy and at times fiery debate in the state House Wednesday. Critics called the ban “unconscionable” without such exceptions.
“Even though I know there are horrible crimes that are committed with rape and incest … The child should not be killed and terminated because of the crime of the father,” said state Rep. Valarie Hodges, who carried Senate Bill 184 in the House.
Louisiana now joins several other states across the South and Midwest in passing a ban on abortions after a “fetal heartbeat” is detected, around six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. Several red states across the country are taking aim at the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade by passing some of the most restrictive abortion laws seen in years.
The laws, including Louisiana’s newest abortion ban, will not go into effect immediately, and could be struck down entirely. Legislators tied the bill to a similar Mississippi law, which is currently making its way through the courts. If the Mississippi law is upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Louisiana’s ban would go into effect. The state has passed a host of abortion restrictions in recent years.
In another high-profile anti-abortion measure, the House refused to accept Senate changes to legislation that would ask the state’s voters to weigh in on whether Louisiana should ban abortion outright if the high court overturns the 45-year-old Roe decision, which protects the rights of a woman to end her pregnancy. The House sent House Bill 425, by Democratic Rep. Katrina Jackson, of Monroe, to a conference committee where lawmakers will clean up the final language before an expected vote to put it on the Oct. 12 ballots.
The “fetal heartbeat” measure passed the state House on a 79-to-23 vote, as a clutch of national and local news reporters crowded the side galleries of the House chamber. Twenty-two Democrats and one independent voted against the bill, while 16 Democrats and three without party affiliation joined House Republicans in voting for SB184. The Senate advanced the measure on May 6 with a 31-to-5 vote.
Edwards, who is at odds with his party nationally on the abortion issue, said shortly after the vote he ran as a “pro-life” candidate in 2015 and believes “pro life means more than just being pro-birth.” He pointed to Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reforms and LGBTQ discrimination protections he has supported since taking office in 2016. Edwards is running for re-election this year.
“I know there are many who feel just as strongly as I do on abortion and disagree with me – and I respect their opinions,” Edwards said in a statement. “As I prepare to sign this bill, I call on the overwhelming bipartisan majority of legislators who voted for it to join me in continuing to build a better Louisiana that cares for the least among us and provides more opportunity for everyone.”
State Sen. John Milkovich, a Shreveport Democrat who has repeatedly pushed abortion restrictions, brought the legislation. Hodges, while presenting the bill in the House Wednesday afternoon, invoked scripture and argued the measure protects unborn babies.
“I believe the right to life is the greatest right there is,” Hodges, R-Denham Springs, said in response to accusations the bill was unconstitutional.
Republicans fought against a proposed exemption for victims of rape and incest, saying it would “punish children” and insisting human life begins at conception. Shreveport Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh said he would support letting a rape victim “execute the rapist,” but not to get an abortion.
Several Democrats argued the GOP-led House was merely “pro-birth” and said the lack of exemptions for rape and incest would lead to children victims carrying babies to term.
“How dare you not allow a family to make a decision for that child who’s carrying a child?” said Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge.
“All you so-called bible thumpers in here who supposedly preach the book you all just speak the words,” said state Rep. John Bagneris, D-New Orleans. “You don’t walk the walk.”
The House voted 35-67 to reject a proposed exemption for rape and incest victims, an amendment brought by Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat. A handful of Republicans voted for the exemption. Abortion rights advocates have said the lack of such an exemption in the law is cruel.
“That’s a family decision,” James said of whether victims of rape and incest should be able to get an abortion. “That’s not a decision for us. We are not that important to make that decision for a woman who is raped.”
Michelle Erenberg, head of the abortion rights group Lift Louisiana, said the vote reveals an “indifference toward Louisiana women.”
“While it’s not surprising the House would pass a bill that disregards the U.S. Constitution, it does demonstrate what this Legislature is all about,” Erenberg said in a statement. “They want to control women and their bodies, forcing them to carry out pregnancies even when they are the result of rape or incest.”
A state Senate committee earlier this month briefly added an exemption for rape and incest victims during a hearing on SB184. But a few minutes later, after Louisiana Right to Life Executive Director Benjamin Clapper voiced his objection to the move, the committee reversed course and stripped out the exemption.
The state already has a host of abortion restrictions on the books, including several that the state is defending in court. A law that would require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. A bill brought by Milkovich last year that would ban abortions at about 15 weeks is tied to a similar Mississippi law that is tied up in the courts.
The Legislature is also poised to pass a measure that would let the public vote on adding a line to the state Constitution to say it does not provide for abortions or funding for abortions, an effort aimed partly at helping defend abortion laws in state courts.
A crop of regulatory changes for abortion clinics are also nearing final passage, including a measure that would require women to get medically-induced abortion drugs at abortion clinics instead of OB-GYNs and another that would require providers to hold onto records longer.
Voting for banning abortions after fetal heartbeat is detected (79): Speaker Barras, R-New Iberia; and Reps. Abraham, R-Lake Charles; Adams, No Party-Jackson; Amedee, R-Houma; Anders, D-Vidalia; Armes, D-Leesville; Bacala, R-Prairieville; Bagley, R-Stonewall; Berthelot, R-Gonzales; Billiot, D-Westwego; Bishop, R-Lafayette; Bourriaque, R-Abbeville; C. Brown, D-Plaquemine; T. Brown, No Party-Colfax; Carmody, R-Shreveport; R. Carter, D-Amite; S. Carter, R-Baton Rouge; Chaney, R-Rayville; Connick, R-Marrero; Coussan, R-Lafayette; Cox, D-Natchitoches; Crews, R-Bossier City; Davis, R-Baton Rouge; DeVillier, R-Eunice; DuBuisson, R-Slidell; Dwight, R-Lake Charles; Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge; Emerson, R-Carencro; Falconer, R-Mandeville; Foil, R-Baton Rouge; Garofalo, R-Chalmette; Gisclair, D-Larose; Guinn, R-Jennings; L. Harris, R-Alexandria; Henry, R-Metairie; Hilferty, R-New Orleans; Hill, D-Dry Creek; Hodges, R-Denham Springs; Hoffmann, R-West Monroe; Hollis, R-Covington; Horton, R-Haugton; Howard, R-Many; Huval, R-Breaux Bridge; Ivey, R-Central; Jackson, D-Monroe; M. Johnson, R-Pineville; R. Johnson, D-Marksville; Jones, D-Franklin; LaCombe, D-Livonia; N. Landry, R-Lafayette; LeBas, D-Ville Platte; Mack, R-Albany; Magee, R-Houma; McFarland, R-Jonesville; McMahen, R-Minden; Miguez, R-Erath; D. Miller, D-Opelousas; G. Miller, R-Norco; Moore, D-Monroe; Jay Morris, R-Monroe; Jim Morris, R-Oil City; Moss, R-Sulphur; Muscarello, R-Hammond; Pearson, R-Slidell; Pope, R-Denham Springs; Pugh, R- Ponchatoula; Pylant, R-Winnsboro; Richard, No Party-Thibodaux; Schexnayder, R-Gonzales; Seabaugh, R-Crowley; Stagni, R-Kenner; Stefanski, R-Crowley; Stokes, R-Kenner; Talbot, R-River Ridge; Thomas, R-Metairie; Turner, R-Ruston; White, D-Bogalusa; Wright, R-Covington; and Zeringue, R-Houma.
Voting against SB184 (23): Reps Abramson, D-New Orleans; Bagneris, D-New Orleans; Bouie, D-New Orleans; Brass, D-Vacherie; Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge; G. Carter, D-New Orleans; Duplessis, D-New Orleans; Franklin, D-Lake Charles; Gaines, D-LaPlace; Glover, D-Shreveport; J. Harris, D-New Orleans; James, D-Baton Rouge; Jefferson, D-Homer; Jenkins, D-Shreveport; Jordan, D-Brusly; T. Landry, D-New Iberia; Larvadain, D-Alexandria; Leger, D-New Orleans; Lyons, D-Harvey; Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge; Marino, No Party-Gretna; Pierre, D-Lafayette; and Smith, D-Baton Rouge.
Not Voting (3): Reps. Leopold, R-Belle Chasse; Norton, D-Shreveport; and Simon, R-Abita Springs.