Although a champion of health care access otherwise, Gov. John Bel Edwards has opposed abortion as long as he’s been in public life.
Yet last year the governor changed his tune, or added a few politically discordant notes anyway, once it became clear that the U.S. Supreme Court was about to reverse Roe v. Wade and make Louisiana’s "trigger" law, which theoretically outlawed almost all abortions, very real.
As lawmakers rushed last spring to double down on the abortion ban, Edwards said he hoped their new bill would include exceptions for victims of rape and incest — perhaps not a new position for him personally, but one he hadn’t previously pushed.
Legislators didn’t, and Edwards signed the bill anyway. But at least his change in emphasis if not heart acknowledged the tragic scenarios about to play out in a post-Roe Louisiana; he aimed to keep victims of violence, including young children, from being violated a second time.
Such compassion in the face of devastating situations would seem a natural response, even for those who reject freer access to abortion.
But it’s not in the nature of the Louisiana Legislature, we learned for sure last week.
With the ban now a reality, advocates for those seeking to slightly loosen the state’s harsh laws — with Edwards on board this time — tried one more time to get through to lawmakers on the subject.
They came to the Administration of Criminal Justice Committee last week armed with a poll showing that 70% of Louisiana voters join the governor in supporting rape and incest exceptions.
Some told deeply personal stories of trauma, including the sponsor of House Bill 346, state Rep. Delisha Boyd, D-New Orleans, who described how her own mother gave birth at 15 after having been raped by a 28-year-old man.
"My mother never recovered," Boyd said. "No one looked after my mother. No one looked out for me."
Others put such stories in the larger context.
“This is extremely dangerous. ... By forcing survivors who want abortions to give birth you are forcing them to forever be connected and controlled by their rapists,” Morgan Lamandre, president of the Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response organization, warned.
They sat through accusations that they were trying to use rape merely as “an excuse to legalize abortion,” as former state Rep. Woody Jenkins, a Baton Rouge Republican known for waving around plastic fetuses during earlier abortion debates, put it.
But their pleas got nothing but cold shoulders from the committee members themselves, and a 10-5 vote to keep things just the way they are.
It was a bad day all around for those who believe Louisiana’s approach is simply too harsh. Another rape and incest exemption went down 9-5, and several clarifying bills aimed at making sure that women having miscarriages or suffering other dangerous conditions can get treatment were pulled, destined to become hot potatoes offered to other committees that might give them a fair hearing.
Part of a bill by state Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman, D-New Orleans, could come back in watered-down form. Her original proposal, House Bill 522, would allow one doctor, not two, to attest that a pregnancy meets legal requirements for medical unviability before an emergency abortion can be performed; the two-provider requirement is a particular obstacle in the state’s rural medical deserts.
Likely dead for the session, though, is Freeman’s proposal to remove the prospect of imprisonment for providers, even though the poll by JMC Analytics found that 59% percent of voters interviewed oppose the provision, which has an obvious chilling effect.
New Orleans Health Director Jennifer Avegno, an emergency room physician, said on “60 Minutes” recently that the law has paralyzed care, but that providers and hospitals fear repercussions if they speak out. She highlighted a letter last year from Attorney General Jeff Landry, now a candidate to replace Edwards, noting that physicians who violate the ban could lose their medical licenses and their “liberty,” and rightly labeled it a "threat."
Providers and patients likely have even more to fear now that lawmakers have surveyed the post-Roe landscape and found it, by and large, acceptable.
If the testimony and the polls won’t get them to show some compassion toward those navigating this treacherous new reality, I don’t know what will.