Legislation, lawsuit show push-pull over abortion rights in Louisiana


A Planned Parenthood supporter steps in front of an anti-abortion activist at a 2017 rally. - PHOTO BY KAT STROMQUIST
  • A Planned Parenthood supporter steps in front of an anti-abortion activist at a 2017 rally.

As a legal battle rages over neighboring Mississippi's recent ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, similar legislation and a lawsuit demonstrate ongoing tensions over the right to obtain an abortion in Louisiana.

The Louisiana Senate's judiciary committee will soon consider two bills that could further restrict abortion access in the state, including a 15-week ban that mirrors Mississippi's. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and Planned Parenthood Center for Choice have filed suit against the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) over what the organization says is an unnecessary delay in the processing of an abortion license for its Claiborne Avenue health center.

Together, the bills and lawsuit underline the fraught environment for abortion rights proponents and women who may need an abortion in Louisiana, which lost one of its few remaining abortion clinics last year. According to Guttmacher Institute data, there were seven clinics operating in Louisiana in 2011; today there are just three.

During the current legislative session, state lawmakers will take up two bills filed by state Sen. John Milkovich, D-Keithville, who cites "fighting abortion" as one of his signature issues. Senate Bill 325 would enhance district attorneys' powers to permanently close clinics that provide abortion services after certain violations, including violations of records-keeping laws. If enacted, his bill proposing a 15-week abortion ban (Senate Bill 181) would match Mississippi as the earliest-term ban in the country. (Louisiana already bans abortions in most cases after 20 weeks; that law was signed in 2012 by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.)

Abortion rights proponents say the legal strategy behind early-term abortion bans is transparent: to chip away at the integrity of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that upheld women's constitutional right to get an abortion. Some argue such laws use legal challenges as a way to clear a path for more sweeping legislation, such as a bill under consideration in Ohio that proposes banning abortion entirely.

"By banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, the [Mississippi] bill violates decades of well-established, clear precedent under the U.S. Constitution," said the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a news release that followed the signing of that state's ban. "Courts have consistently struck down similar bans on abortion before viability."

In a statement accompanying his bills' filing, Milkovich said his intent was to "end the scourge of abortion in Louisiana."

It's not yet clear how much support these bills will garner among Louisiana legislators, but as reported by The Advocate, Milkovich has a key ally: Gov. John Bel Edwards. Though Edwards, a Democrat, has made a point in this session to support women's causes (such as equal pay), he opposes abortion and announced on his monthly radio program that he'd be likely to sign a 15-week ban that made it to his desk — a remark which sent waves of alarm through abortion rights proponents in the region.

"The idea that Gov. Edwards would say he was inclined to sign it is shocking," says Rochelle Tafolla, vice president of communications and marketing for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. "That is just a show of how extreme some politicians have become, and willing to cast aside the health care needs of the people in the state — and women in particular."

If the 15-week ban begins to move quickly through the legislature — especially, Tafolla says, considering the fiscal crisis lawmakers currently are contending with — Planned Parenthood will mobilize local supporters and abortion rights proponents against the bill. A Louisiana State University 2016 poll found that 40 percent of Louisianans support abortion rights in "all or most" cases.

While representatives weigh the merits of more stringent restrictions on abortion in the legislature, Planned Parenthood has moved to expand the availability of abortions to women here in the state. In February, the group filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the LDH, who Planned Parenthood said has been deliberately delaying the processing of its application for an abortion license at its Claiborne Avenue facility in New Orleans. If approved, it would be the first Planned Parenthood clinic in the state to offer abortion services.

According to its complaint, Planned Parenthood filed for an abortion license in the fall of 2016, only to be met with requests for investigations the suit calls "politically motivated." At the time the suit was filed, Planned Parenthood says several months had passed without communication from LDH. (LDH communications director Robert Johannessen declined to comment on the suit, citing ongoing litigation.)

The original license application was submitted just a few months after the opening of  Planned Parenthood's New Orleans Health Center, which endured legal challenges and delays from abortion opponents over the course of its construction. Though the clinic has been open and offering health care services (including STI testing, cancer screening and family planning), Tafolla says the organization's intent was always to use the facility to expand women's access to abortion in Louisiana, and that the LDH's delays have only hindered that objective.

"We knew just from being in Louisiana for the past 30 years — and everything that's been happening politically — that people in [the state] needed more health care, and absolutely needed access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion," she says. "We have come through that long process of building ... and now applying for the license, and waiting for a response, and here we are: still waiting."

Tafolla compares the delay to a pattern of restriction in the state, such as 2016's expansion of the waiting period to receive an abortion and requiring doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, which are also being challenged in court. Legislative attempts to limit abortion access have been a near-constant backdrop for the organization while it tries to secure credentials to add a second abortion provider to the New Orleans area.

But in the absence of a license — and as its lawsuit against LDH progresses — Planned Parenthood's hands are essentially tied.

"We're kind of in a wait-and-see mode at this point," Tafolla says. "[With] the legislative session, and another ban proposed, it just sort of lines up with really bad news for women."

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