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Ahead of election, Louisiana activists know abortion ban is staying; but they're still fighting

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Rosemary Westwood
/
WWNO
Deon Haywood, executive director of Women With A Vision, at their offices in New Orleans on Oct. 5, 2022.

A group of four phone-bankers sat around a conference table at the offices of Women With A Vision in New Orleans, a group that advocates for abortion rights, about a month before the midterm elections, dialing up voters across Louisiana to ask them about reproductive rights.


En Español: De cara a las elecciones, el aborto sigue prohibido en Luisiana, pero los activistas no se rinden


They didn’t use the word abortion — it tends to make people hang up on them. Instead, they said they were calling about “Louisiana’s statewide decision in regards to family planning” and “women’s reproductive rights,” euphemisms for Louisiana’s near-total abortion ban in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

Then they asked whether the voter wanted more information about family planning. Oftentimes, the answer was “yes.” In that case, they took down an email address to add to Women With A Vision listserv.

This fall, WWNO and stations across the NPR Network are sharing stories from their communities about abortion access and reproductive rights. Our aim is to give you better insight into the lived reality and implications of these issues for people across the nation. You help WWNO continue to tell the region’s story -- and contribute to the national conversation -- when you make a donation to WWNO.

The group’s phone banking efforts are part of a push to send out 100 phone bankers and canvassers ahead of the election, organized by the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a group dedicated to increasing voter turnout especially among Black people and people of color in Louisiana. It’s also one way abortion rights groups are trying to raise awareness about the impact of Louisiana’s abortion bans and mobilize voters across the state.

Nationally, the midterms are set to be a referendum on abortion rights — and a chance in some states to protect abortion rights at the state level.

But that's not on the table in Louisiana, where the anti-abortion movement holds a political monopoly. And that leaves abortion rights supporters faced with the question of how to fight back when they’ve already lost so much.

“We’re not going to get Roe back right away,” said Deon Haywood, the executive director of Women With A Vision.

But when Women With A Vision volunteers knock on doors ahead of November, Haywood hopes the conversation will move beyond the need to vote. She wants people to start seeing abortion rights as deeply entwined with every other issue that might motivate them to get to the polls — and she sees an opportunity to galvanize Louisianans who did not want Roe v. Wade overturned.

“[Abortion] has to be a part of the larger narrative,” Haywood said. “It can no longer be in a silo over there called ‘abortion land.’ It has to be included in every oppression that people are feeling.”

For Haywood and Erenberg, the strategy is to make abortion part of a larger political agenda for a more equal society, from housing and education to policing. It’s a framework developed by Black women called reproductive justice — a way of combining reproductive rights with the conditions that actually help families thrive.

“It is the right to have children, the right to not have children. It is the right to raise our children and our families, both chosen and biological, in communities that are safe,” Haywood said, “And I should have a job that allows me to afford to give my family what they need, right? We should have education.”

Both Women With A Vision and Lift Louisiana, a group that lobbies and litigates for abortion rights, are building partnerships with progressive groups that might not have seen a need to join forces around reproductive rights in the past, including groups that advocate for better housing and criminal justice reforms.

Haywood believes that reproductive justice is the framework needed to get more people who support abortion rights in Louisiana to vote like it.

The state’s abortion rights supporters have long believed more people in Louisiana agree with them than the Capitol’s politics would suggest.

The Republican Party controls the state house; a number of prominent Democrats oppose abortion rights, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, who signed Louisiana’s near-total abortion ban into law, and State Sen. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe), who wrote it. The ban passed with the bipartisan support of more than 70% of the legislature.

Then there’s the constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2020 which declares that there can be no right to an abortion found within the Louisiana Constitution. Roughly 62% of voters supported the amendment and 38% voted against it. (The amendment is similar in language to the Kansas abortion amendment voted down over the summer, though Louisiana’s vote occurred when many believed Roe v. Wade was safe, and even Louisiana Right to Life, which helped author the amendment, argued the vote wouldn’t ban abortion in Louisiana.)

But more recent polling paints a more divided state. An LSU survey released in April — as speculation was growing that the U.S. Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade — found support for abortion rights has grown in the last six years in Louisiana; the public is now split 46% in support of legal abortion in all or most cases, compared to 49% against legal abortion in all or most cases.

For Haywood and Erenberg, tying abortion rights to other urgent problems could turn some of those 46% who support legal abortion into abortion-rights voters.

Erenberg will also be watching to see if the elections show evidence of opposition to the ban that abortion-rights groups can build upon.

“I’m definitely going to be looking at voter turnout — I think that that will be a big indicator,” Erenberg said.

Democrats who support abortion rights are running for a number of seats on the state and national level, and they’re making abortion a key issue in their campaigns. Those races could be a barometer for how Louisianans feel about banning nearly all abortions.

But it likely won’t be because pro-choice candidates upset the well-funded, anti-abortion Republican incumbents, such as Sen. John Kennedy and House Whip Steve Scalise.

Instead, John Couvillon, founder of JMC Analytics and Polling, said the question will be just how much of the vote Democratic candidates manage to win in those races, especially in parishes with high percentages of white-collar and professional women.

“I'm thinking about East Baton Rouge, St Tammany, Jefferson, places like that,” Couvillion said.

National polls show women of reproductive age in particular are motivated to vote in the midterms because of the Supreme Court decision.

Couvillon said one race to watch is the Sixth Congressional District, to see if there’s an “abnormally high” vote for Libertarian Rufus Craig, who’s running against incumbent Garret Graves in one of two congressional seats where the Democrats didn’t field a candidate this election cycle.

And Couvillon said to look for whether Katie Darling gets a higher-than-expected share of the vote against Scalise, who won with 72% of the vote in 2020.

Darling, a mother of two, went viral last week with an abortion rights campaign ad featuring video footage of her giving birth to her new son, part of a trend of abortion rights campaign ads released in recent months by Louisiana Democrats, including Gary Chambers, Luke Mixon and State Rep. Royce Duplessis.

Meanwhile, Louisiana Republicans — like many in the GOP across the country — have been relatively quiet on abortion since the Dobbs decision. Scalise has focused on the economy; Kennedy released his own viral ad on crime, telling critics of police brutality to “call a crackhead” next time they need help; and Congressman Clay Higgins has touted his support for the oil and gas industry.

That could leave a void for Democrats to speak to voters who think Louisiana’s abortion ban, which has no exceptions for rape or incest, goes too far.

“The lane is open” for Democrats, Couvillon said. “The key is, what else can you present to the voters to show that, ‘Hey, I have a coherent alternative platform relative to what the other guys are proposing, which is burying this issue in the sand.’”

Despite the political landscape that makes abortion rights all but impossible to win back anytime soon, Erenberg said voters who support abortion rights still need to show up to every election.

“Every election should be considered the most important election to restore abortion access,” Erenberg said.

“And if we don't start voting like that, if we don't start voting on this issue, and really scrutinizing the candidates on this issue,” she added, “then we really don't have any chance of restoring access in Louisiana ever.”

Beyond the midterm elections, Erenberg sees one opportunity to make substantial, immediate changes to what awaits pregnant women in Louisiana: the upcoming legislative session.

There might be a slim chance to enhance abortion access at the margins, she said, by adding an exception to the near-total ban for survivors of rape and incest.

Louisiana Right to Life, which helped draft the law, opposes exceptions for rape or incest. But polling suggests those exceptions are likely supported by a majority of people in Louisiana.

A 2022 national survey by the Pew Research Center found that among those who oppose legal abortion in all or most cases nationally, over half support some kind of exception for rape, and a poll released this week by the Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies and SurveyMonkey found that 76% of Republicans support rape and incest exceptions.

But Erenberg said the biggest avenue for change could come in the areas around abortion.

There could be a chance to expand comprehensive sex education in schools, she said. Louisiana doesn’t require sex education in schools, and when sex is addressed, schools must emphasize abstinence.

Lift Louisiana also wants to increase access to reproductive health care services, including expanding access to contraception, investing more in family planning services and prenatal care, and focusing on addressing the maternal mortality crisis in Louisiana, where Black women who give birth are more likely than White women.

The impact of Louisiana’s near-total ban could aid these efforts. Between 8,000 and 10,000 abortions a year took place in Louisiana in recent years. With most abortions now banned, the state is potentially facing many more babies born each year, more women needing prenatal and postnatal care and more families needing support.

“If people are going to be forced to carry pregnancies to term in Louisiana,” Erenberg said, “then we really need to be pushing to make the conditions better for them so that they can actually take care of those children and have fulfilling lives.”

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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