BATON ROUGE -- 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 news for several weeks because it had adopted one of the strictest abortion laws in the United States.
The anecdotes and fables are still being repeated: Pro-life forces, as well as those for choice, made it nearly impossible to navigate the State Capitol. Lawmakers who supported forms of abortion were cursed at and threatened by opponents, who in turn had to be dragged away by State Police. A few pro-choice advocates even managed to get press badges and make it onto the House floor.
“It was a trying time,” said Rep. Warren Triche, D-Chackbay, who was serving in his first term during the last abortion debate – a policy altercation he likened to other classic legislative battles like right-to-work and the gill net ban. “It was difficult to carry on with business.”
Still, others remember the situation quite differently. Rep. Carl Crane, R-Baton Rouge, who was first elected in 1982, said the entire debate was blown out of proportion and sensationalized by the media. Furthermore, he said the situation was outrageous and doubts the spectacle will ever be repeated again – even though a sequel is planned.
“I hope the media doesn’t preoccupy itself with this,” Crane said. “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 it was indeed emotional. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists pulled their convention from New Orleans not long after. Cable news networks conducted special reports about how the bill first came about in 1990 – then-Gov. Buddy Roemer vetoed the original bill, wanting to exempt victims of rape and incest, and crafty lawmakers reinserted the slightly-accommodating language into an unrelated flag-burning bill.
Roemer vetoed the second version as well, but lawmakers didn’t have the votes in the Senate to override the decision. The following year, however, in 1991, 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 recalled. “But I vetoed that sucker because it was just so unconstitutional.”
Well, for the latest regular session that will stretch well into June, the Legislature has come full circle. There are at least four bills filed that address the issue of abortion, and there’s even another flag-burning bill. But there are a few elements new to the scuffle. For starters, a federal court struck down Louisiana’s original abortion ban in 1992.
Additionally, and more importantly, the U.S. Supreme Court has grown more conservative under the current administration and many lawmakers – including the Louisiana authors – are pointing to the anti-abortion bills as a way to carve up the landmark 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade, which essentially legalized abortions.
If the grassroots effort does end up as a showdown in the nation’s highest court, then the first strike was dealt earlier this month in South Dakota when lawmakers there made it a crime for doctors to perform abortions unless it threatens the life of the mother. There are no exceptions for rape and 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, said all of the stars have finally aligned for his group’s cause and the first successful bill in South Dakota is 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 provider of U.S.-based abortion services, said Louisiana isn’t alone in its follow-up to the South Dakota legislation – at least 10 other states are prepared to debate similar bills. And for each one that passes, he said Planned Parenthood will fight them in court, thus signifying 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 said. "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, D-Bogalusa, 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, according to the legislation. Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, has included similar penalties in his bill, but he does make an exception for incest and rape.
If any of these measures should reach the desk of Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Catholic and a Democrat, it’s clear what she might do. Her stance on abortion was stated many times during her run for governor and has been documented in several media outlets – 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, including those in the Terrebonne-Lafourche delegation, are devoutly religious and serve in somewhat conservative districts. Historical trends indicate they will likely stand by the governor’s opposition to outright abortions, but that doesn’t mean the debate will be docile and unified – outside or inside the legislative chambers.
“You can go ahead and put the saddle on the horse, because I’m sure it will be a rough ride,” Triche said. “It will take a great deal of limelight out of the session.”