Abortion in Louisiana

by Jeremy Alford

One issue threatens to turn the Legislative session and the state on its ear in coming months.

It has been 16 years since the Louisiana Legislature took up the issue of abortion in a real way.

In 1990, pro-life and pro-choice forces made it nearly impossible to navigate the state Capitol. Lawmakers who supported forms of abortion were cursed at and threatened by opponents, who in turn were dragged away by state police. A few pro-choice advocates managed to get press badges and make it onto the House floor. National news networks ran special reports about the abortion legislation's odyssey; former Gov. Buddy Roemer vetoed the original bill, wanting to exempt victims of rape and incest, and crafty lawmakers reinserted the slightly accommodating language into an unrelated flag-burning bill.

Roemer vetoed the second version as well, but lawmakers didn't have the votes in the Senate to override the decision. The following year, however, lawmakers came back with the same legislation and were able to override Roemer's veto ' the only time that has happened in recent history.

"You're bringing up some bad memories for me," Roemer recalls. "But I vetoed that sucker because it was just so unconstitutional."

In the end, Louisiana adopted one of the strictest abortion laws in the United States. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists subsequently pulled their convention from New Orleans, but other ripple effects were halted when a federal court struck down Louisiana's original abortion ban in 1992.

Fast-forward 14 years, and there are at least four abortion-related bills filed in the latest session of the Louisiana Legislature that stretches into June. (There's even another flag-burning bill.) But for this go-round, the U.S. Supreme Court is more conservative, and many lawmakers ' including the Louisiana authors ' are pointing to anti-abortion bills as a way to carve up the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

The first salvo was fired earlier this month by South Dakota lawmakers, who made it illegal in their state for doctors to perform abortions unless it threatens the life of the mother. There are no exceptions for rape or incest, and violating doctors could face up to five years in prison.

Jim Sedlak, vice-president of the American Life League, one the nation's largest pro-life organizations, says all the stars have finally aligned for his group's cause, and the first successful bill in South Dakota is a "monumental step toward ending abortion in this country and protecting all innocent human beings ' born and preborn."

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the leading provider of U.S.-based abortion services, says Louisiana isn't alone in its follow-up to the South Dakota legislation ' at least 10 other states are prepared to debate similar bills. For each one that passes, Planned Parenthood is mobilizing action.

"In every state, women, their families and their doctors should be making private, personal health care decisions, not politicians," Richards says. "These abortion bans, and the politicians supporting them, are far outside the mainstream of America. Planned Parenthood will fight these attacks in court."

In Louisiana, Sen. Ben Nevers, a Bogalusa Democrat, has filed a bill to ban all abortions, except those that save a mother's life, and makes no exception for rape and incest. The crime of abortion would be punishable by one to 10 years in jail and a fine of $10,000 to $100,000, according to the legislation. Rep. Tim Burns, a Mandeville Republican, has included similar penalties in his bill, but he does make an exception for incest and rape.

Rep. Carl Crane, a Baton Rouge Republican elected in 1982, doesn't want a repeat of the early-90s abortion coverage, which he says was blown out of proportion and sensationalized by the media.

"I hope the media doesn't preoccupy itself with this," Crane says. "I don't think it's going to be an important issue. It has been pretty well dissipated. And the whole issue of abortion then was mischaracterized. Everyone thought we were spending so much time on the issue, and that's all you heard about. But if you consider the amount of time spent in committee and in debate, it wasn't that much."

If any of these measures reaches the desk of Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Catholic and a Democrat, it's clear what she might do. She stated many times during her run for governor that she thinks abortions should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest and to save a mother's life. She also favors a ban on "partial birth," or late-term, abortions.

A majority of Louisiana lawmakers, many of whom are devoutly religious in a somewhat conservative state, stand by the governor's opposition to outright abortions. That doesn't mean the debate will be docile and unified ' inside or outside the legislative chambers.

"You can go ahead and put the saddle on the horse, because I'm sure it will be a rough ride," says Rep. Warren Triche, a Chackbay Democrat who was serving his first term during the last abortion debate. "It will take a great deal of limelight out of the session."