Should Louisiana Restrict Abortion in Its Constitution? Voters Get to Decide.

Lawmakers gave final passage Tuesday to the measure aimed at defending abortion bans in the future, part of a wave of abortion bills being passed in Louisiana and across the country this year.
by | June 7, 2019 AT 8:15 AM
An anti-abortion protester standing near the West Alabama Women's Center, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP/Brynn Anderson)

By Sam Karlin

When Louisianans go to the polls in November 2020 to vote for president, they will also be faced with a ballot measure asking them to decide whether to enshrine anti-abortion language in the state Constitution.

Lawmakers gave final passage Tuesday to the measure aimed at defending abortion bans in the future, part of a wave of abortion bills being passed in Louisiana and across the country this year.

The proposal, brought by state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, was changed in recent days to move the date of the ballot measure from this October's gubernatorial primary election -- when anti-abortion Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards will be on the ballot -- to the November 2020 presidential general election.

If approved by voters, the measure would not immediately impact access to abortion in Louisiana. But proponents say it could eventually help defend abortion bans that are challenged in state court by making clear the state Constitution does not provide a right to an abortion. The amendment would become relevant if the landmark U.S. Supreme Court abortion decision Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Some Republicans, skeptical of changing the election date, questioned why Jackson wouldn't want to put the measure to voters sooner, like during the October gubernatorial primary. Edwards is facing reelection as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, and will be on the ballots with his Republican challengers in October. Jackson, a Democrat, said she preferred a higher-turnout election like the presidential one next year.

"This bill still gives people the right to choose whether or not the Louisiana Constitution provides a right to abortion," Jackson said. "I definitely don't think the pro-lifers in this chamber want to kill the bill."

Both the House and Senate voted Wednesday to approve the final version of the legislation after it went through an intense and acrimonious debate on the Senate floor. The House vote was 79-20 and the Senate vote was 33-5 in favor of the bill.

New Orleans Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, chair of the state's Democratic party, gave a fervent speech opposing the measure, decrying its lack of exceptions for rape and incest. The Legislature this session has held multiple debates over whether to add exemptions for victims of rape and incest, but lawmakers have ultimately opted not to include them.

"Shame on any governor that signs a bill that does not have exceptions for rape and incest," Peterson said. "Your religious views are not to be imposed on every citizen of this state."

Lawmakers also gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that would prevent women from obtaining drugs to induce abortion medically from OB-GYNs. If HB133 by Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, is signed by Edwards, the drugs would only be available at the state's three remaining abortion clinics. That measure is one of several regulations that lawmakers are tacking on to abortion providers, who say the changes are part of a concerted effort to make it more difficult to keep clinics open in the state.

"If they close down those three facilities ... we would no longer have access to medical abortion," said Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans. "That's what this bill does. This bill is aimed with the purpose of getting rid of medical abortions."

Louisiana has long pushed abortion restrictions and is defending a host of abortion laws in court. A law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital is awaiting action by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lawmakers earlier this session passed a "fetal heartbeat" ban that represented one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. But abortion is expected to remain available in the short-term, as Supreme Court precedent still protects the right and clinics say they will remain open for now.

Louisiana is part of a group of states seeking to topple, or at least weaken that decision by passing and defending abortion restrictions in court.

The constitutional amendment approved Wednesday, if approved by voters, would add a line to the state constitution saying "to protect human life, nothing in this constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion." It does not need the approval of Edwards, who has signed multiple abortion restrictions since taking office in 2016.

Michelle Erenberg, the head of Lift Louisiana, which advocates for abortion rights, said recently the proposal will "directly hurt some of our most vulnerable citizens: poor women."

"This shameful proposal doesn't even make exceptions for women who are victims of rape or incest," Erenberg said. "Rest assured, we will fight for women's rights all the way to the ballot box and stand up to those who want to make women second-class citizens."

If the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade is overturned, states would be able to decide whether to allow abortions. Louisiana already has a law on the books that would make the procedure illegal if that happened.

In some states, like Kansas, courts have ruled abortions legal because the procedure was not expressly forbidden. Jackson has argued a statewide vote condemning the practice would effectively trump efforts to legalize abortion on the state level.

The anti-abortion group Louisiana Right to Life backed the measure.

Gov. Edwards last week signed the "fetal heartbeat" bill--which would ban abortions at about six weeks before many women know they are pregnant--over objections from national Democrats and abortion rights groups. Lawmakers refused to add exceptions to the law for victims of rape and incest to that measure, and Edwards has been rebuked by Peterson, the state party chair. Edwards, a former lawmaker, was joined by several Democrats in the Legislature in supporting the bill.

The law would go into effect if a similar Mississippi law is upheld in a federal appeals court.

The move brought national attention to Louisiana and sparked disagreements within the state Democratic party, whose members are also frequently at odds with national Democrats. The GOP-led Legislature easily passed the bill after shooting down several attempts to exclude victims of rape and incest.

(c)2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.