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Louisiana bill would allow murder charges for abortions; opponents call it 'barbaric'

The Louisiana State House in Baton Rouge
Kezia Setyawan
The Louisiana State House in Baton Rouge

As the United States braces for the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade and an end to the constitutional protection of abortion rights, Louisiana lawmakers are advancing legislation that would bolster their ability to criminally punish doctors and individuals who violate the state’s abortion restrictions.

UPDATE: Fate of abortion as murder bill in doubt after Right to Life group, allies come out against it

The Louisiana House Committee for the Administration of Criminal Justice advanced legislation Wednesday that would redefine personhood to begin at the moment of fertilization and would allow prosecutors to charge anyone who undergoes or provides an abortion with murder.

HB813 by Rep. Danny McCormick (R-Oil City) would also allow the state to disregard any federal court rulings contradicting the new law and would grant the legislature the right to impeach and remove any state judges that attempt to block it from taking effect.

“If more than 15 states can defy the federal government over marijuana, we can do it to save the lives of innocent babies,” McCormick said. “We cannot wait on the Supreme Court to confirm that innocent babies have the right to life in Louisiana.”

Rep. Danny McCormick (R-Oil) city speaks at a rally of Louisiana Republicans at the state capitol. July 19, 2021.
Paul Braun
Rep. Danny McCormick (R-Oil) city speaks at a rally of Louisiana Republicans at the state capitol. July 19, 2021.

The committee’s overwhelming approval came less than 48 hours after the unprecedented leak of a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion that showed that the court’s conservative majority is prepared to overturn the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The draft opinion is not final, and the High Court has until the end of its term in June to issue a formal ruling. But McCormick insists that his bill would take effect regardless of the court's decision.

The bill's author was joined by a large crowd of supporters from religious organizations, including representatives from an association of more than 1,600 Baptist churches in Louisiana.

Chris Kaiser, advocacy director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said the legislation gave him “grave concern” of how a post-Roe Louisiana would treat women who attempt to exercise control of their reproductive health care.

“HB813 is a barbaric bill that would subject people to murder prosecutions, punishable by life without parole, for having abortions,” Kaiser said.

Opponents of the bill said its broad scope would also criminalize in vitro fertilization, intrauterine birth control devices (IUDs) and emergency contraception as well.

“Louisiana already has a trigger law that would outlaw abortion and subject providers to penalties if Roe is overturned,” Kaiser said. “Proponents of this legislation say that’s not enough. They want to send people to prison for life.”

Kaiser further described the measure as an “unconstitutional assault on the separation of powers” for explicitly allowing state lawmakers to disregard any Supreme Court rulings that contradicted the proposed law.

Melissa Flournoy, a former state lawmaker and head of the Louisiana Coalition for Progress, said the bill could have the unintended consequence of criminalizing miscarriages.

“This is an unprecedented step… both in terms of its expansive definition of personhood and the draconian level of criminalization that the bill would authorize against the pregnant woman,” said Ellie Schilling, co-founder of the abortion-rights organization Lift Louisiana.

Schilling, who works as an attorney representing reproductive health care providers, testified against the bill during Wednesday’s committee hearing, saying that the legislation would “annihilate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution,” and took exception to provisions of the law that would allow the legislature to ignore past and future Supreme Court rulings and to impeach and remove state judges who attempt to rule against the law.

“It’s very disappointing and honestly kind of shocking that even with our conservative legislature that they would allow a bill to advance that is, on one hand, so blatantly unconstitutional, and on the other hand, so dangerous in terms of its implications,” Schilling said.

Schilling pointed to the committee’s decision just one week earlier to reject legislation that would protect women from prosecution for a lost pregnancy. In that debate, committee members characterized the notion that a person would be prosecuted for having a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy as farfetched, but a week later they passed legislation that could allow for just that.

The discretion in those cases would be granted to prosecutors.

Few representatives expressed concerns that the legislation would be deemed unconstitutional by the courts.

“While I intend to vote for this bill, I might suggest that there may be better options that can actually go into practice, instead of concepts that I feel like are probably going to be struck down,” Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville) said. “I would rather see something happen other than just a vote for a bill that we agree with in concept, but probably recognize will not stand muster beyond the legislative process.”

Bacala joined Rep. Bryan Fontenot (R-Thibodeaux), Rep. Ray Garofalo (R-Chalmette), Rep. Jonathan Goudeau (R-Lafayette), Rep. Nick Muscarello (R-Hammond), Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) and McCormick in voting to advance the bill to be considered by the full House of Representatives.

Rep. Joe Marino (I-Gretna) and Rep. Vanessa Caston Lafleur (D-Baton Rouge) cast the only no votes.

Representatives Marcus Bryant (D-Vidalia), Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge), Valarie Hodges (R-Denham Springs), Richard Nelson (R-Mandeville) and Debbie Villio (R-Kenner) were absent for the vote.

If the legislation wins approval from the state’s Republican-dominated legislature, it would go to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has been a steadfast supporter of abortion restrictions throughout his time as governor and during his previous stint as a state lawmaker.

Earlier this week, Edwards declined to comment on the leaked draft of the Supreme Court opinion that showed the court’s conservative majority was willing to overturn Roe v. Wade, other than to say that a formal ruling along those lines would activate Louisiana’s 2006 “trigger law” that would ban abortion in nearly all circumstances.

In 2019, Edwards signed one of the harshest abortion restrictions in the country, a so-called “fetal heartbeat bill” that would outlaw abortions once cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo, typically around six weeks of gestation.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.

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