Thanks in large part to anti-choice Democrats, Louisiana this week became the latest state to pass a near-total abortion ban.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, signed the ban—SB 184—into law on Thursday, though it will only take effect if a federal appeals court upholds a similar law in Mississippi. The legislation, which would ban abortion around six weeks of pregnancy before many know they are pregnant, is often misleadingly dubbed “heartbeat” bans, though at six weeks’ gestation, there is no fetus and no heart. There is a “fetal pole,” a thick area alongside the yolk sac that extends from one end of an embryo to the other. What can be measured at six weeks is electrical activity in the fetal pole.
Democratic state Sen. John Milkovich (Shreveport) was the lead author of the bill, which was co-sponsored in the state senate by eight other Democrats.
Louisiana, which is now the fifth state to pass a six-week abortion ban this year, already restricts access to abortion care, with requirements like biased counseling, waiting periods, and parental consent. Only three clinics offer abortions statewide, and 63 percent of the state’s women live in counties with no abortion clinics. Low income, rural women, and women of color are disproportionately affected by these restrictions, and advocates fear that the new ban will only make things worse for them.
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When asked last week about the embrace by some state Democrats of anti-choice policies, Kaleb Harmon, spokesperson for the state Democratic Party, said in an email to Rewire.News, “We are not currently commenting on this issue.”
Edwards, who is up for re-election this year, took office in 2016 after eight years of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s regressive policies. Edwards ran on raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour and the expansion of Medicaid. However, he also ran on an anti-choice platform. Honored nationally in 2016 by the anti-choice group Democrats for Life of America (DFLA), he has signed numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation.
Lakeesha Harris, reproductive justice and sexual health program manager at the community-based nonprofit Women With A Vision in New Orleans, told Rewire.News that Democrats in Louisiana often mirror Republicans when it comes to issues like abortion. They will say one thing and vote another way, or they will “take a walk” and be absent.
The presence of anti-choice Democrats is rooted in the domination of the Catholic Church and white evangelical men, whose conservatism forms the basis of politics in the state, she said. “So you are talking about their inability to separate church and state,” Harris said. “It doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican here in Louisiana.” Often, she can’t tell the difference between the two, she said.
The Louisiana Democratic Party’s website doesn’t include information about its position on abortion. But anti-choice Democrats in the state are out of touch with the party’s national platform, which includes a section on “Securing Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice.”
“We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured. We believe that reproductive health is core to women’s, men’s, and young people’s health and wellbeing,” the 2016 national platform reads.
Democrats in Louisiana have nevertheless for years joined Republicans to pass anti-choice legislation aimed at criminalizing pregnant people and physicians. Many of them are strongly anti-choice and are backed or promoted by anti-choice organizations. Rep. Katrina R. Jackson (D-Monroe), for instance, has sponsored 14 bills aimed at curtailing access or choice since 2014, and has worked on legislation with the National Right to Life and Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom. Jackson was a featured speaker at the 2019 National Right to Life March.
Her “Love Life Amendment,” promoted by anti-choice groups like the Louisiana Pro-Life Amendment Coalition passed the state house and senate with overwhelming majorities this year. If approved by voters in October, HB 425 would change the state constitution to say there is no right to an abortion.
Other bills pushed by Democrats in Louisiana this year include:
- HB 133, a targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) bill revising the definition of abortion, co-sponsored by four Democrats in the House—state Reps. Kenny R. Cox (Natchitoches), Katrina R. Jackson (Monroe), H. Bernard LeBas (Ville Platte), Pat Moore; (Monroe);
- SB 221, a bill regarding informed consent requirements that would make changes to the law requiring abortion providers to provide certain information to their patients prior to an abortion, co-sponsored by four Democrats in the senate—state Sens. Milkovich (Shreveport), Regina Barrow (Baton Rouge), Gregory Tarver (Shreveport), and Francis C. Thompson (Delhi);
- HCR 55, also filed by Jackson, commending state Rep. Frank A. Hoffmann (R) for his years of “pro-life leadership.”
Louisiana Democrats have long differed from the national party platform on abortion, Pearson Cross, associate professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, told Rewire.News. Many state legislators are Catholic and have become “more stridently” anti-choice in recent years and this has “created problems for the national [Democratic] party as it has become more aligned with the pro-choice position and women’s rights,” he said.
Advocates say Democrats don’t have to be anti-choice to win in Louisiana. Pro-choice legislators largely keep quiet about abortion when they run. Then they tend to tread “very lightly and not very vocally,” Harris said.
“I think any politician who can effectively articulate their position on economic justice for workers, promoting small businesses and community development, supporting teachers and schools to help students succeed, and ensuring access to comprehensive health care would win the support of voters,” Amy Irvin, co-founder and executive director of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, told Rewire.News. “Democrats should be strong in their principles, including respect for privacy, autonomy, equal opportunity, protection for vulnerable people, and community empowerment.”
That hasn’t happened in Louisiana, where politicians have for years “dismissed scientific studies with junk science, ignored expert testimony, and dismissed the experiences of the women who have had abortions in order to champion anti-choice legislation,” Irvin wrote in a 2017 Cosmopolitan op-ed. “If you want to know what happens when the Democratic Party embraces politicians who want to deny women access to abortion, look no further than here in Louisiana.”
Irvin told Rewire.News she is angry about the lack of compassion from Louisiana’s leaders and fearful for residents who suffer because of it.
“Our state is in need of bold leadership on issues of police brutality and mass incarceration, access to healthy food and clean water, educational opportunities, comprehensive health care, and more. And yet, rather than considering the context in which people make decisions about their reproductive future, politicians seek to regulate their ability to make decisions,” she said.
This type of culture and atmosphere make advocacy tough, but that’s all the more reason for voters to think hard about the legislators they want representing them, advocates say. Voters are expected to weigh in on Jackson’s constitutional amendment banning abortions when they take to the polls on October 12, for instance. It would have to be approved by voters and require the reversal of Roe v Wade to have any real impact.
“I feel like the time has come to ask our politicians those hard questions: Are you pro-choice?” Harris said. “If they are not pro-choice, if they are not pro-minimum wage increase, we do not elect them, period. Because we are in a crisis.”