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What’s ahead for abortion and maternal health in the Louisiana legislative session

The Louisiana State Capitol. March 2021.
Phoebe Jones
The Louisiana State Capitol. March 2021.

When Louisiana’s legislative session kicks off next week, legislators will be facing a slew of proposals to change the state’s abortion ban — proposals certain to see strong push-back from anti-abortion groups.

This will be the first session since Louisiana banned nearly all abortions just under a year ago, forcing the majority of people seeking abortions to leave the state and setting off fear and confusion for many health care providers over how to treat patients under the new law.

Here’s a round-up of what’s ahead for abortion, pregnancy and maternal health at the legislature.

Amending the state’s abortion ban

Two separate bills — one by Rep. Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport, and one by Rep. Delisha Boyd, D-New Orleans — would insert rape and incest exceptions into the abortion ban.

Neither bill would require survivors of sexual assault to file a police report before seeking an abortion, something that can be “a major barrier for many people,” according to Lift Louisiana executive director Michelle Erenberg. She noted that the majority of sexual assaults are reported to police because of the risks it can carry for the survivor.

Another group of bills aims to address confusion and fear inside hospitals over the ban. HB 461 by Rep. Mary Dubuisson, R-Slidell, would simplify the process for getting a legal abortion to treat miscarriages or when the fetus isn’t viable by requiring only one physician to sign off — the current law requires approval from two physicians. HB 598 by Rep. Candace Newell, D-New Orleans, would explicitly allow abortions for cancer patients who can’t access treatments while pregnant. HB 522 by Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, would lower the penalties under the law by replacing prison time with fines.

“All of these are really meant to untie the hands of the medical community and allow them the discretion and the ability to use their best medical judgment,” Erenberg said.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, a vocal opponent of abortion rights who’s signed every abortion ban that crossed his desk, has supported adding rape exceptions to the law, though similar proposals failed last year.

Polling suggests many Louisianas might also support such an amendment: A 2022 Louisiana State University poll last year found respondents were evenly split over whether abortions should be legal or illegal in all or most cases. And rape and incest exceptions are popular even among conservatives. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted nationally last year, 56% of Republicans said abortions should be legal in cases of rape, compared to 23% who said they should be illegal. The poll also showed that 19% said it depends on the circumstances, but didn’t get more specific than that.

But Louisiana Right to Life, the state’s most powerful anti-abortion group, is poised to push back against most changes to the abortion ban, which it helped write. The organization has long fought against rape and incest exceptions, said communications director Sarah Zagorski.

“We believe that regardless of how a baby is conceived, that that child's life is intrinsically valuable,” Zagorski said.

Louisiana Right to Life also opposes reducing the number of physicians needed to approve an abortion for medical necessity, and it’s still reviewing the bill on abortions for cancer patients, Zagorski added.

Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, has introduced a bill to allow the public to propose changes to the state's constitution, something currently prohibited in Louisiana and a change that could pave the way for a referendum on the state’s abortion ban. She’s also re-introduced a bill that failed last year — it prohibits a pregnant person from being civilly or criminally liable for pregnancy outcomes, including abortion.

Adoption and crisis pregnancy centers

Zagorski said Louisiana Right to Life doesn’t have plans to enact further abortion restrictions, unlike other states where legislatures are dominated by anti-abortion politics. Instead, Zagorksi said her organization is focused on “positive, pro-life bills, pro-mom bills.”

One is a bill to create a $5 million tax credit for donations to crisis pregnancy centers from Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton. For years, Louisiana has funneled millions in welfare dollars to support crisis pregnancy centers, which offer material needs and support for pregnant people and new parents, including diapers, baby clothes, and connections to resources or adoption agencies.

“Some of these centers have very robust services. And this is something that in a post-Roe framework, we should be focusing on,” Zagorski said.

The centers are not health care providers. They are typically affiliated with conservative Christian organizations and promote religious views of sex and marriage. Some make false claims about birth control and promote the unproven and potentially dangerous practice of abortion reversal.

Lift Louisiana has long criticized crisis pregnancy centers, and Erenberg called the bill a “drain on revenue at a time when the state needs to actually be investing more money in legitimate pregnancy support and child care.”

Louisiana Right to Life is also supporting a bill by Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, to create atax credit for certain adoptions, including children from foster care or infants under the age of one who are unrelated to the taxpayer.

Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, a longtime ally of Louisiana Right to Life, has proposed a bill that would allow women to claim a fetus as a dependent for tax purposes.

Improving maternal and reproductive health

Erenberg said Lift Louisiana is focusing on maternal health during this legislative session. The organization is supporting a bill by Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans, that would require health insurance coverage for doulas and a proposal from Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, to increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate for licensed midwives.

Lift Louisiana is also supporting a bill that would require public schools to provide free menstrual products to students and one to allow a survey of Orleans Parish students about sexual risk behaviors.

Erenberg said Lift also plans to fight a series of anti-trans bills this session, including one that would ban gender-affirming care for minors or even referring patients for that, and another bill that would prevent school staff from talking about sexual orientation, gender identity or using a trans youth’s preferred pronouns without parental permission.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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