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After winning its biggest victory, here’s what comes next for Louisiana's anti-abortion group

TJ Burgess, Ashley Gilliam and Alex Seghers, all with Louisiana Right to Life, hold signs on Veterans Memorial Boulevard on Oct. 2, 2022
Rosemary Westwood
TJ Burgess, Ashley Gilliam and Alex Seghers, all with Louisiana Right to Life, hold signs on Veterans Memorial Boulevard on Oct. 2, 2022

Ben Clapper, the executive director of Louisiana Right to Life, walked up to a podium at the Baton Rouge Press Club on a recent Monday and began on a note of celebration.

“We estimate that so far since Roe v. Wade being overturned, 2,512 unborn babies have been protected by our law,” he told reporters.

That’s likely an overcount. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ended abortion rights on June 24, triggering Louisiana’s law banning nearly all abortions, the number of Louisiana women ordering abortion pills online illegally has tripled. Others have traveled to states where abortion remains legal. Still, hundreds of women have likely been forced to stay pregnant here in recent months.

Louisiana Right to Life — the state’s most powerful anti-abortion group — has been celebrating a victory it’s spent over 50 years fighting to achieve, but it wants to go further. It wants to end an exception to the ban that allows for abortions for so-called “medically futile” pregnancies in the next legislative session.

“We would support efforts to remove that exception,” Clapper said.

The exception for medically futile pregnancies was added to the law this spring — against Louisiana Right to Life’s lobbying — to allow for abortion when a fetus has a condition so severe it won’t survive birth.

In the months since the ban took effect, Louisiana Right to Life has been arguing on social media and in church meetings that the exception is morally wrong because, it says, abortions in these cases kill a fetus before it can reach its natural death.

At the press conference, Clapper said nobody should be allowed abortions for terminally ill fetuses.

“Every human person, even if they are disabled, born or unborn deserves their full lifespan, whether their lifespan is short or long,” Clapper said. “We should never kill another person because they are sick or disabled.”

Banning abortions for terminally-ill fetuses

The medically futile provision of the law instructs the Louisiana Department of Health to create a list of conditions it deems incompatible with life and that allows for legal abortions. Louisiana Right to Life suggested the list stop at just four conditions. The health department’s list currently has 25.

The conditions are so severe that they typically result in fetuses that die within hours or days of being born. These pregnancies also carry risks beyond the fetus’ survival.

The Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, the professional organization that represents physicians who treat high-risk pregnancies, said physicians are “ethically bound” to give their patients the option of abortion when a fetal diagnosis indicates there’s no chance of long-term survival because of the risks to the patient’s health of continuing the pregnancy.

Louisiana’s law made national headlines this summer when Nancy Davis was denied an abortion at Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge after learning her fetus had no brain or skull. The specific diagnosis — acrania — wasn’t explicitly on the health department list, though Woman’s Hospital officials and some doctors have said the diagnosis is included under anencephaly, which is on the list.

Woman’s Hospital officials said Davis was denied an abortion because of other anti-abortion laws on the books in Louisiana. As a result, Davis ended up traveling to New York for an abortion, an experience she called “devastating.” In the wake of Davis’ story, the health department is considering adding acrania to that list, to make it explicit that patients who carry a fetus with acrania can get an abortion.

Louisiana Right to Life “abhors” the creation of the health department’s “list of babies that can be killed,” according to a post on its Instagram account.

And as a kind of counterpoint to Davis’ story, the group has been promoting stories of families who chose to carry these kinds of pregnancies to term. Louisiana Right to Life has been sharing images of a 1.5-year-old baby named Mary Teresa who was born with Trisomy 18, another condition that allows for abortion and one that kills most children before their first birthday.

In another story at the press conference, Clapper talked about a friend whose baby, Tess, was diagnosed with trisomy 13, a terminal illness that currently allows for a legal abortion.

“But my friend did not choose abortion,” Clapper said. “Tess was born, and she only lived for nine hours. While her life was short, my friend shares that Tess was a blessing to her family.”

Defending their gains

Beyond further restricting abortion access, Louisiana Right to Life has been focused on defending the state’s ban — one of the most restrictive in the nation.

That was the focus of an anti-abortion rally in October, when a few dozen anti-abortion activists gathered for a rally at Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie.

Karen Villarreal, a 64-year-old from New Orleans, held up her sign as cars sped past that read “Women deserve better than abortion.”

“The pro-choice people have been making so much noise. I want everyone to know that pro-life people are wanting to help,” she said.

Beyond the criticisms from those who support abortion rights, Louisiana’s abortion ban has been criticized for sowing fear and confusion inside Louisiana hospitals, where doctors now must make medical decisions about complicated pregnancy care under the threat of jail time.

Alex Seghers, the director of education for Louisiana Right to Life, said it was time to show resolve.

“The climate is tense right now. And people have so many questions that people who were pro-life are sometimes even questioning it themselves,” Seghers said.

Seghers said there’s also some concern that legislators could try to add rape and incest exceptions to the law — something Gov. John Bel Edwards has supported.

“I think we're at a very vulnerable position, and people are feeling angry and wanting to put exceptions in our law,” Seghers said. “So legislatively, we need to be stronger than ever.”

The next legislative session

Louisiana Right to Life hasn’t laid out detailed plans for the next legislative session, beyond its support for further limiting abortion. It doesn’t take a position on the death penalty. Clapper said it also doesn’t get involved in policy discussions over state spending for those living in poverty in Louisiana, or children in foster care.

But the last legislative session might hint at areas it could pivot to, now that it’s won its most coveted victory. During that session, Louisiana Right to Life supported a law that would require the labeling of vaccines created with cells from aborted fetuses. The bill failed.

It also opposed a law that would have required health insurers to cover certain fertility treatments, a bill that also failed. Louisiana Right to Life, like many in the anti-abortion movement, is critical of the creation of embryos in fertility treatments.

For months, Clapper and other leaders at Louisiana Right to Life have been traveling across Louisiana to shore up support for the ban, giving talks in churches and to school groups and urging anti-abortion advocates not to pack up and go home, now that most abortions are banned.

Their message has been clear: For anti-abortion activists, there’s more work to be done.

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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