Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

The non-debate over abortion


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When the Legislative Black Caucus' chairwoman, who also happens to be a member of the Democratic Caucus, decides to author an abortion bill that has Gov. Bobby Jindal's support, one can assume the die has been cast. Maybe that's why state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, has had such an easy go at passing her bill to restrict access to abortion services in Louisiana.

  While opponents of her bill trekked to the Capitol to speak out against it, the term "full force" doesn't exactly describe their efforts. Those who showed up when Jackson's bill sailed through the House Health and Welfare Committee in mid-March reportedly offered conflicting testimony and differing sets of facts. The disorganized front wasn't helped when opponents squabbled openly and noisily with the committee chair. In the end, not a single committee member, not even one of the panel's nine Democrats, voted against the bill.

  There was a time when abortion rights advocates could pack a committee room and make a lot of noise. Today, the odds are stacked against them, thanks to a political environment that makes many Democrats vote like Republicans amid the growing influence of faith-based groups like the Louisiana Family Forum.

  When Jackson's House Bill 388 was debated on the House floor last week, the vote was 85-6 in favor, with no exchanges whatsoever. Maybe a few dirty looks here and there, but no pointed questions or heated debate. Fourteen lawmakers took a walk when the votes were cast. Of those marked absent, 10 were Democrats. While some may have needed a bathroom break or had other pressing business, it's difficult these days to imagine a Democrat who lives in a conservative-leaning district or who harbors a desire to run for higher office being eager to cast a vote against restricting access to abortions.

  Even before the legislative debate started in earnest, Jackson's bill was making national headlines for its similarity to a bill passed not long ago by Texas lawmakers. That Lone Star law has resulted in the closing of facilities there, but Jackson's bill isn't exactly a duplicate measure, though, it's close. The Texas version has some language about the stage at which a fetus can live outside the womb, which the bill being considered by the Louisiana Legislature doesn't mention.

  Jackson's bill mirrors what's in place in Texas in that it creates major hurdles for abortion clinics to remain open. For instance, her bill has a proximity clause that would require physicians who perform abortion procedures to have admittance privileges at a medical facility within 30 miles of their clinics. That could create problems in rural areas, where health care access is already a challenge.

  It also includes a 24-hour waiting period for the use of inducing medications and mandates that such applications be reported anonymously to the state Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), which already has a database for abortions that involve surgery. Additionally, more private physicians would have to register with the state and make their contact information public under the legislation. Right now, doctors only have to register if they perform five procedures in a given month; Jackson's bill would apply that standard annually, which means many more doctors would have to register.

  DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert and Jackson argue the legislation is about women's health, while opponents counter that it's about closing abortion clinics. Melissa Flournoy, director of Planned Parenthood of the Gulf Coast, said three of Louisiana's five clinics would be shuttered if the bill passes, leaving only a pair of facilities in northwest Louisiana. (Those seeking the procedure, however, would still be able to go to a private physician.) The expected clinic closures are due largely to the proximity clause, because there are no guarantees that hospitals will freely agree to give admitting privileges to physicians who perform abortions. In other states, attorneys general and the courts have had to get involved over the clause.

  The bill now heads to the state Senate, where it likely will enjoy the same fast track. But that won't be the end of this year's abortion debate. Other bills have been introduced that would prohibit abortion providers or their affiliates from distributing information in schools; cut off public funding for groups like Planned Parenthood; and require that women, prior to having an abortion, be provided with packets explaining the "increased risks of psychiatric and psychological harms associated with abortion."

  Those bills, like Jackson's, will trigger opposition. But if you're looking for an old-fashioned war of social values, don't hold your breath. The conservative makeup of the Louisiana Legislature has made this issue a foregone conclusion — to the point that some opponents aren't even bothering to show up.


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