Abortion One word could turn the legislative session, and the state, on its ear in coming months. Pullquote: Right-to-lifers hope a new round of anti-abortion bills will overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. By Jeremy Alford It has been 16 years since the Legislature took up the issue of abortion in a real way, and many people still remember what a circus it was. Religion, sex, morality and politics made for a volatile mix, as it usually does. Louisiana made national headlines as lawmakers adopted one of the strictest abortion laws in the United States.
The anecdotes and fables are still repeated: Pro-life forces, as well as those for choice, made it nearly impossible to navigate the State Capitol. Lawmakers who supported any form of "choice" were cursed at and threatened by opponents, who in turn had to be dragged away by State Police. A few pro-choice advocates managed to get press badges and made it into the House.
Others remember the time quite differently. Rep. Carl Crane, a Baton Rouge Republican who was elected in 1982, says the debate was sensationalized by the media. Crane says the entire situation was outrageous and doubts the spectacle will ever be repeated -- even though a sequel is being planned.
"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."
There may have been mischaracterizations about the debate from both sides, but there's no denying the emotional tenor of the times. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists pulled its convention from New Orleans not long after. Cable news crews filed special reports about how the bill came about in 1990 -- then-Gov. Buddy Roemer vetoed the original version, wanting to exempt victims of rape and incest. Desperate right-to-lifers responded by morphing an unrelated flag-burning bill into a new version of the anti-abortion measure, with the exceptions favored by Roemer.
Roemer vetoed the second version as well, and lawmakers again didn't have the votes in the Senate to override him. 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."
For the legislative session that opens this week and runs through mid-June, lawmakers have come full circle. At least four bills address the issue of abortion -- and there's another flag-burning measure. There are some new wrinkles as well. The U.S. Supreme Court has grown more conservative under the Bush Administration. Right-to-lifers hope a new round of anti-abortion bills will overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. For example, a bill passed by South Dakota lawmakers makes it a crime 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 the stars have finally aligned for his group's cause. He called the South Dakota bill 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 advocate of U.S.-based abortion services, says at least 10 other states, including Louisiana, are prepared to debate similar bills. Richards says Planned Parenthood will fight each such bill in court, a signal that the judicial battle is on.
"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. Rep. Tim Burns, a Mandeville Republican, has included similar penalties in his bill, but he makes an exception for incest and rape.
If any of these measures should reach the desk of Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Catholic and a Democrat, her position is clear: 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 so-called "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, but that doesn't mean the debate will be civil -- 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."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.