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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

15-week abortion ban squeaks through House criminal justice committee

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2018 at 12:04 PM

click to enlarge At a 2017 rally for Planned Parenthood, a supporter steps in front of an anti-abortion demonstrator. - PHOTO BY KAT STROMQUIST
  • At a 2017 rally for Planned Parenthood, a supporter steps in front of an anti-abortion demonstrator.

After hearing emotionally charged testimony that pitted an all-male group of bill supporters against an all-female group of abortion rights proponents, the Louisiana House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee voted 9-8 on May 2 to advance a controversial ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy to the House floor.

Senate Bill 181 by state Sen. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, matches a recently passed law currently undergoing legal challenges in Mississippi. The local bill would go into effect after the Fifth Circuit court rules on Mississippi's ban. The Louisiana law, opponents say, will endanger women's lives by forcing abortion underground and fostering cruel situations, such as forcing women to carry pregnancies to term even after fetal abnormalities are discovered (a situation which often can't occur, one third-year medical student testified, until 18-20 weeks of pregnancy.)

In statements on the bill, Milkovich and bill supporters argued for fetal personhood, with Milkovich saying the state has a "moral obligation" to protect the unborn. "Babies are humans — they're just small humans," he said. He also introduced arguments, which were largely not present in previous committee and floor appearances, that abortions after 15 weeks present a special risk of complications to the mother.

But the group of six women who testified against the bill, which included reproductive rights attorney Ellie Schilling, Women With a Vision reproductive justice manager Lakeesha Harris, abortion clinic employee Angela Adkins, New Orleans Abortion Fund executive director Amy Irvin, an OB-GYN resident physician and a medical student, pushed back hard on the idea that the purpose of this law is to protect women. They pointed to the decrease in abortion access in the state, where three abortion clinics serve more than a million women of reproductive age; the already-high cost of abortion, pregnancy and child care; the difficult situations faced by women who discover birth defects late in a pregnancy and the certainty of this bill — which is in opposition to several Supreme Court decisions on abortion — attracting expensive litigation.

Harris described the high levels of poverty Louisiana women experience, and described "passing the hat" among community members to help other women afford an abortion. "Feeding another child on less than a living wage would entrench them" in further poverty, she said. "I can tell you that the circumstances that make up our lives are complicated at best. ... No woman I have ever met takes abortion lightly."

Irvin, of New Orleans Abortion Fund, emphasized that 70 percent of the women the fund assists already have children, and that women have a "moral and legal right" to decide whether to expand their families.

"It's unconscionable for elected officials to relentlessly shame, judge and punish women," she said.

One of the most startling moments of the hearing took place during an exchange between Milkovich and state Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-East Baton Rouge, who questioned whether S.B. 181 would retain Louisiana's present law permitting late-term abortions to save the life of the mother. While abortion opponents who testified in favor of the bill said doctors' opinions would probably take precedence in such situations, Milkovich disagreed.

"This bill does not recognize exceptions. ... My position is that this is a total ban after 15 weeks," he said.

State Rep. Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge, also was troubled by the law's lack of apparent exceptions for rape or incest survivors, and expressed worry about the bill creating situations in which women must seek abortions from unlicensed medical providers.

"I'm more concerned about driving it underground, in backdoors or closets or hotels, to be in an unsafe environment," Carpenter said. "I understand your concept, but I also do feel that women have rights."

After the close vote, the bill moves back to the House floor, clearing one of its last hurdles before heading to the governor's desk. What will happen becomes hazy after that — if approved by legislators, Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he would be inclined to sign the ban, but the way the bill is set up (to be triggered after a decision on Mississippi's law) means at least a delay until it goes into effect.

The bill's unique provisions in the state — for example, its inclusion of criminal penalties — could draw litigation regardless, said Schilling.

"[This law is] more severe, and therefore more unconstitutional," she said. "The state is already spending millions of dollars trying to defend laws like these."

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