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

RightToLife_051022.jpg
Paul Braun
/
WRKF
Louisiana Senators Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), Heather Cloud (R-Turkey Creek), Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge) and Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) join hands at a rally held by Louisiana Right to Life to celebrate a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion suggesting the imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade. May 10, 2022.

A controversial proposal that would allow the state of Louisiana to prosecute people who undergo or perform abortions as murderers faces an uncertain fate after anti-abortion groups came out against the legislation as too radical.

HB813 by Rep. Danny McCormick (R-Oil City) is scheduled for consideration by the Louisiana House of Representatives on Thursday, as people around the country prepare for the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade and try to determine what the regulation of abortion would look like in the hands of the states.

McCormick’s so-called “Abolition of Abortion in Louisiana Act” earned national headlines last week when a Louisiana House Criminal Justice Committee advanced the legislation that would rewrite the state’s homicide statutes to redefine personhood to begin at the moment of fertilization and would afford embryos all of the legal protections that come with that status.

Abortion rights groups immediately raised the alarm, calling the legislation “shocking” and “barbaric.” They claim that the sweeping changes would not only criminalize performing or receiving an abortion but would also outlaw certain forms of birth control and in vitro fertilization and could lead to women being prosecuted for having a miscarriage.

The bill also included language that would allow the state to disregard any federal court rulings contradicting the proposed law and empowered the legislature to impeach and remove any state judges who attempted to block it, provisions that some say would be deemed unconstitutional.

Within days of the committee voting 7-2 along party lines to send the bill to the full Louisiana House of Representatives for consideration, some of the state’s most active anti-abortion groups said they would not support McCormick’s effort or any legislation that would impose criminal penalties on people who end their pregnancies.

Friday evening, Louisiana Right to Life released a statement saying the legislation was “not consistent” with its policies.

“Our longstanding policy is that abortion-vulnerable women should not be treated as criminals,” the statement said. “Instead, we should hold accountable the individuals performing the abortion or selling or providing the chemical abortion drugs.”

In the days since, the organization has been actively lobbying Republican lawmakers to amend the bill to eliminate the most controversial elements of the proposal, according to a report by the Louisiana Illuminator.

But because McCormick’s bill focuses on the state's homicide statute, such a change would require lawmakers to eliminate the original legislation in its entirety and replace it with language modeled after another abortion criminalization bill that has already won Senate approval and explicitly states that pregnant women would be exempt from prosecution.

SB342 by Sen. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) would add teeth to the state’s 2006 “trigger law” by imposing a series of criminal penalties for abortion providers. Under Jackson’s bill, abortion providers could face between one and 10 years in prison and a fine ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 for abortions performed on someone less than 15 weeks into a pregnancy. Those penalties would escalate to up to 15 years in prison and a $20,000 to $200,000 fine for abortions performed after 15 weeks.

According to the Illuminator’s reporting, Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport), a member of the criminal justice committee that advanced the bill last week, is expected to propose the amendments. When the committee tallied its final vote for the bill last week, Seabaugh answered with an emphatic “Absolutely” in lieu of the standard “Yea” vote. A little over a week later, his own amendments could gut the bill.

If he does propose the amendments, it will be a reversal by one of the bill’s most ardent supporters.

Louisiana Right to Life confirmed the details of the plan in a statement released Thursday morning and said they would support the legislation after the overhaul.

Representatives from Louisiana Right to Life said bills like McCormick’s — and the national media attention they draw — take away from the other legislation they support.

“I think it's really unfortunate timing because we are at the precipice of what I believe is the end of Roe v. Wade, so I think the focus needs to be back on that,” said Sarah Zagorski, communications director and adoption educator for the organization. “This is a huge victory for our movement that we’ve been looking for for decades.”

Zagorski spoke at a rally held by her organization and a group of Republican women on the capitol steps Tuesday afternoon, in which state lawmakers touted the bipartisan abortion restrictions making their way through the legislature with Louisiana Right to Life’s blessing.

The organization is pushing bills like SB104 by Sen. Beth Mizell (R-Franklinton), which would allow patients — and possibly anti-abortion activists posing as patients — to bring cell phones into abortion clinics and SB388 by Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), which would outlaw remotely prescribing and mailing abortion drugs, a process that is likely to grow in popularity if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Louisiana Right to Life’s position on McCormick’s bill has given some lawmakers and state officials political cover to oppose the legislation.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who is a staunch opponent of abortion rights, came out against McCormick’s bill Wednesday, calling it “problematic” and “patently unconstitutional” at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge.

Edwards expanded on those comments in a written statement released a few hours later.

“But House Bill 813 is not a pro-life bill,” Edwards said. “... This bill would criminalize the use of certain types of contraception, as well as parts of the invitro fertilization process, and it could even serve as a barrier to life-saving medical treatment for a woman who is suffering a miscarriage. To suggest that a woman would be jailed for an abortion is simply absurd."

Up to this point, Edwards has signed every abortion restriction that has reached his desk, including some of the most aggressive restrictions in the country.

In 2019, Edwards signed a so-called “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortions at the earliest detection of cardiac activity in an embryo, typically around six weeks of gestation.

A year earlier, he signed a 15-week abortion ban modeled after the Mississippi law that is at the center of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the case the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering and is expected to use to overturn the 50-year precedent set by Roe v. Wade.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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