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Abortion rights activists ready to fight trigger laws like Louisiana's after SCOTUS ruling

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Hillel Steinberg
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A woman holds a sign at a Washington, D.C. rally on Jan. 24, 2020.

In the hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the constitutional right to an abortion guaranteed for nearly 50 years, abortion-rights advocates vowed to fight the implementation and enforcement of abortion trigger laws that have banned the procedure in states like Louisiana.

Louisiana was one of only three states whose trigger law took effect immediately after the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, imposing a near-absolute ban on the procedure from the moment of implantation and stiff criminal penalties on the doctors who perform the procedure.

Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), the group that defended the abortion clinic at the center of the case that prompted Friday’s historic Supreme Court ruling, said her organization already has “about three dozen” pending abortion-rights cases across the country.

She said her group would be adding to the list soon by filing legal challenges to the patchwork of abortion restrictions that are taking effect across the country.

“We’re going to continue to push on every single legal front,” Northrup said. “We will be back in court tomorrow and the next day and the next day making sure as much as possible abortion access can be retained.”

Julie Rikelman, the CRR attorney who argued for Jackson Women’s Health before the Supreme Court, echoed Northrup in saying lawsuits were imminent, but did not say which states would be targeted first for legal action.

“Everything is being analyzed and all of these options are being considered on an ongoing basis,” Rikelman said. “But in the days ahead, the Center will work with our clients, our partners and our allies, as we have done for many years, to preserve access where we can for as long as possible, even if that means in some places only a few weeks or months.”

Northrup said the decision and states’ efforts to enact the most stringent abortion restrictions would ignite a public health emergency at a time when public support for abortion access has never been higher.

“Utter chaos lies ahead, as some states race to the bottom with criminal abortion bans, forcing people to travel across multiple state lines and, for those without means to travel, carry their pregnancies to term — dictating their health, lives and futures,” Northrup said. “The Court’s opinion delivers a wrecking ball to the constitutional right to abortion, destroying the protections of Roe v. Wade, and utterly disregarding the one in four women in America who make the decision to end a pregnancy.”

In a written statement, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry celebrated the landmark decision with a prayer and a promise to vigorously enforce Louisiana’s near-absolute ban on abortion.

“In the decades since Roe v. Wade, nearly 60 million innocent lives were lost to abortion; today, the bleeding stops as the United States Supreme Court has overturned that historic and dreadful judicial activism.”

Louisiana’s once-theoretical abortion trigger law, first passed in 2006, has taken effect. The law, along with dozens of other prospective abortion restrictions, bans all abortions after the “moment of fertilization and implantation”, shutters the state’s three abortion clinics, and imposes stiff criminal penalties on doctors who perform the procedure.

“My office and I will do everything in our power to ensure the laws of Louisiana that have been passed to protect the unborn are enforceable, even if we have to go back to court,” Landry said. “As the chief legal officer for our State, I will continue defending Louisiana’s pro-life laws and working to ensure the health and safety of women and their babies.”

Under the new regime, abortions would only be allowed in Louisiana to “prevent the death or substantial risk of death to the pregnant woman” or to end ectopic and medically futile pregnancies.

There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Recent legislation, signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards this week, imposes a series of strict legal requirements that pregnant people must satisfy before they can end those dangerous or medically futile pregnancies.

State lawmakers crafted the legislation in close collaboration with Louisiana Right to Life, the state’s most influential anti-abortion group.

The organization praised Friday’s landmark decision saying it had “worked tirelessly for this day for 52 years.”

“Louisiana is ready to be abortion-free,” Louisiana Right to Life Executive Director Benjamin Clapper said in a statement. “We celebrate the overturn of Roe v. Wade, restoring Louisiana’s right to protect every precious unborn baby from abortion. But we know our work is not done. Through an abundance of public and private resources, Louisiana is ready to support women and children before and after birth."

Edwards, who described himself as “unabashedly pro-life and opposed to abortion,” was more reserved with his reaction to the decision.

“I understand that people on both sides of this complex issue hold deeply personal beliefs, and I respect that not everyone, including many in my own party, agrees with my position,” Edwards said.

He added that he believes the state’s laws should allow for abortions in cases of rape and incest — exceptions that were not included in the state’s 2006 trigger law or recently-passed legislation updating that law that Edwards signed earlier this week.

“Being pro-life means more than just being against abortion,” Edwards said. “Make no mistake, there is much more that we can do to support women, children, and families, and I hope that my fellow pro-life public officials will join me in these efforts in the coming months and years.”

But Alanah Odoms, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, and other supporters of abortion rights said the end to legal abortion in Louisiana will only deepen existing inequities in the state.

“After today’s decision, Louisiana politicians are getting ready to turn back the clock nearly 50 years on our fundamental rights, and force women and everyone who can become pregnant into a second-class status,” Odoms said, “Today’s ruling will also have deadly consequences, with the harm falling hardest on Black women and other people of color who already face a severe maternal mortality crisis that is the worst in the same states that are determined to ban abortion.”

Odoms also said that forcing someone to carry a pregnancy would have “life-altering consequences, highlighting how Black women in Louisiana are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

David Schmit, communications director for the abortion-rights group Lift Louisiana, said abortion access will still be an option for people with the means to travel to a state where abortion will remain legal.

“Let’s be clear that this decision will not affect privileged people, mostly white, from accessing abortion services,” Schmit said in a statement. “Instead it empowers the state to continue to oppress Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, people with low incomes, young people, people living in rural areas and other marginalized communities from accessing abortion care.”

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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