When New Orleans native Kathy Allen became pregnant in 1980, she was 19. Home from college on spring break, she kept it a secret.
“I didn’t want anybody to know I was pregnant because I was not supposed to be the kind of person who accidentally got pregnant,” Allen said. “I just wanted to quickly do something that allowed me to keep my nice reputation together and go back to school and pretend nothing happened.”
So, she got an abortion. Many years later when she was pregnant with her son, Joshua, who has Down syndrome, she had a change of heart.
“When the doctor said that there was a 50 percent chance that I was carrying a child with Down syndrome, he thought it was horrible.” Allen said.
She felt like the doctor was pressuring her to have an amniocentesis to test for chromosomal abnormalities so that if her fetus did indeed have Down syndrome, she could choose to have an abortion.
“Anytime the doctors would talk about Down syndrome, it would be in such tragic terms,” she said. “It just struck me that people would decide that a child had no value or no worth before the child was even out of the womb, and that’s when it occurred to me that that’s the same kind of decision that I had made.”
She went from being quietly pro-choice to advocating for pro-life legislation in Louisiana as director of Louisiana Black Advocates for Life, a project of Louisiana Right to Life that Allen says seeks the meaningful inclusion of African Americans in pro-life advocacy.
In a state where roughly 60 percent of all the abortion care is provided to Black people, Allen hoped that she might have persuaded others like her to change their minds.
“I think a lot of us who are pro-life have at one time been pro-choice.” Allen said. “I believe anybody given a certain level of information or opportunity to have a personal encounter with certain kinds of issues can move along the spectrum to a different position.”
On Nov. 3, Louisiana residents showed where on the spectrum they lay, voting 62 percent in favor of Amendment 1, which proposed new state constitutional language banning any right to an abortion or funding of abortions, except in cases of life endangerment.
“I’m not surprised, having worked with Louisiana Right to Life for the last six years and seeing the enthusiasm and amount of work that’s put into pro-life advocacy by people of all ages,” Allen said, adding, “It’s good. It does protect and promote the cause of life.”
Louisiana’s Amendment 1 is almost identical to a West Virginia ballot initiative also called Amendment 1, which was voted into law in 2018. That similarity caused Katrina Rogers, who managed the pro-choice campaign for Louisiana for Personal Freedoms — a coalition of organizations in Louisiana that engage in reproductive justice work and oppose Amendment 1 — to question whether Louisianans really even wanted greater restrictions on abortion.
“It being a carbon copy of the one in West Virginia, that says a lot to me.” Rogers said. “This is not in response to anything that the masses in Louisiana requested.”
Rogers’ campaign centered the voices of the state’s most marginalized people and included conversations about trans men taking hormone replacement therapy and gender non-binary residents, who can both become pregnant. She said Amendment 1 would create a situation in which Louisiana residents who can’t afford to travel to a state that does not restrict abortion access would “have to endure forced pregnancies.”
“Amendment 1 is an attack on class,” Rogers said before the election. “[It] will really directly punish people for not being able to afford to travel to get access to abortion care.”
New Orleans physician and obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Virginia Williams added that restrictions like those in Amendment 1 make it “exceedingly difficult” for doctors to provide safe care, even in those state-sanctioned cases when an abortion is necessary to save a pregnant person’s life.
“The downscale effects are laws like this make it harder for doctors to be trained and skilled [in abortion care],” Williams said.
She shared a recent case of a woman who lived hours away from New Orleans whose pregnancy threatened her life, as she was already suffering from a heart condition. Although her primary doctors suggested that she terminate the pregnancy, they were unable to do the procedure. The woman had to travel several miles to be treated by Williams.
“I was the only person who could help her,” Williams said. “It was heartbreaking.”
Rogers called pro-life advertisements misleading because they portrayed a very pregnant woman instead of a woman in the early stages of pregnancy, which is when pregnancies are typically terminated. She and Williams have said that Amendment 1 will further oppress poor Louisianans.
“As long as humans have been having sex, abortion has been a thing. It’s important to note that Amendment 1 will not end abortion,” Rogers said. “Some people are going to die, not all of them. Some people are going to be criminalized because they try to self manage an abortion.”
Williams emphasized that abortion is still legal in Louisiana. The voting in of Amendment 1 does not automatically end abortion services in Louisiana, given that the federal statute of Roe vs. Wade remains in place. But with conservative justice and Metairie native Amy Coney Barrett confirmed to the Supreme Court just days before the election, a new decision on Roe may overturn the longstanding ruling that claims abortion is a human right.
If that were to happen, Amendment 1 will effectively ban abortions in Louisiana.
Williams projected that we may see more self-managed abortions “when people get backed up against a wall,” adding that, “When it is done in the right hands, an abortion is an incredibly safe procedure.”
In a state where the maternal mortality rate is 58.1 per 100,000 — similar to the rate of Brazil, according to the World Population Review — and where 19 percent of residents lived below the poverty line in 2019, there are only three reproductive health care clinics that provide abortions.
The state’s limits to abortion care include a requirement that patients receive an ultrasound at least 24 hours before an abortion is provided. It also requires that patients receive in-person, state-funded counseling and then wait 24 hours before they terminate the pregnancy. This requirement alone means that only patients who live nearby or can afford to travel to a clinic and pay for an overnight stay in addition to paying for their abortions can receive abortion care.
“People seek abortions for all kinds of reasons. Most of the time people are making that decision based on economic circumstances” said Michelle Erenberg, executive director of Lift Louisiana, a member of the Louisiana for Personal Freedoms coalition, which advocates for the health and wellbeing of the state’s women and their families.
Erenberg said that Louisiana legislators should “focus on creating conditions in which people felt economically secure enough to carry pregnanc[ies] to term” if they want to see the number of abortions in the state reduced, rather than restricting access.
Amendment 1’s principal author Katrina Jackson, a Democrat, who identifies as “pro-life for the whole life,” has emphasized creating social programs that improve Louisianans lives, but said she must advocate for life and against abortion despite a lack in these initiatives being fully realized.
“Most people I talk to now were born after 1973 when Roe vs. Wade was passed. I ask them, ‘Would you have wanted me to advocate for your life, or wait for a program to come along?’”
Shortly after 12 a.m. CT Jackson tweeted, “Glory be to God!!! Amendment 1 Passed...”
While Louisiana Black Advocates for Life’s Kathy Allen wants to see an end to abortions in her home state, she’s also hoping that the pro-life movement can focus on ending social problems that make people choose to terminate their pregnancies.
“We want this to be the beginning of looking at life in a really comprehensive, holistic way that as we focus on preventing a right to abortion being found in our constitution, we want to see the meaningful inclusion of the issues that we know are driving people into abortion clinics,” Allen said.
For pro-choice supporters and advocates like, Williams, Erenberg and Rogers, a holistic approach to life would be one that honored the bodily autonomy of people who have become pregnant and no longer want to be.
“The people who can get pregnant are being stripped of their humanity, and we’re just being presented as containers and incubators, and we’re not people who have feelings and needs and hopes and dreams and suffering and struggles,” Rogers said. “There’s nothing humane about dictating what someone has to do with their body.”
Erenberg said that while she is “deeply disappointed,” by the outcome on Amendment 1, she was urging all of the activists involved in the campaign against the initiative not to be discouraged. She and other reproductive justice advocates are setting their sights on the next legislative session.
“We will do what we’ve always done. We will pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off,” Erenberg said.
Rogers was not immediately available for a comment on the amendment being passed.
“This is my state. This is my home. These are my people and I’m fighting for my people and I have to do everything I can to keep people from suffering because of Amendment 1,” she said before the election.