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Rape and incest exceptions voted down along party lines in Louisiana House committee

Stuart Seeger
/
Flickr

Two bills to add rape and incest exceptions to Louisiana’s abortion ban failed in the state House Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday.

Lawmakers and residents debated the bills for nearly four hours, hearing gut-wrenching and harrowing testimony of sexual abuse and rape, including of young children.

Most of the testimony centered on HB346 by Rep. Delisha Boyd (D-New Orleans), who said she authored the bill to restore women’s ability to make choices over their own lives. She introduced the bill by stating that her mother had been raped and gave birth to her at the age of 15, before Roe v. Wade.

“I know that my mother never recovered from that,” Boyd said. “She was dead before she was 28 years old, because no one took time to take care of the child that had been violated by a predator.”

Later Boyd said that Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville) told her he was glad her mother couldn't get an abortion, because that meant Boyd was here. Then he asked Boyd if she was glad she was here.

“I am,” Boyd said she responded. “I'm very blessed in every aspect of my life. But I would not want to sacrifice a life for life,” Boyd said, referring to how her mother’s rape and pregnancy created trauma that Boyd believes caused her death.

Advocates for the bill argued that forcing rape survivors to carry a pregnancy amounted to secondary trauma or a “second rape.” The committee heard cases of children as young as 8 years old being impregnated.

Katie Hunter-Lowrey of Louisiana Survivors for Reform testified that knowing she could get an abortion after being raped kept her from “completely flying off the edge.”

“If you consider yourself, and are going to tell your constituents in the fall that you work to support public safety and support survivors, you have to support this bill,” she said.

Dr. Nicole Freehill, a New Orleans OBGYN, told the story of a 14-year-old patient who became pregnant after being repeatedly raped by an uncle. She said children who get pregnant have a higher risk of preterm labor, preterm birth, preeclampsia and severe complications.

Another physician testified she treated an 11-year-old who’d been sexually abused by a caretaker.

Boyd said forcing rape and incest victims to carry pregnancies also infringes on their religious freedom.

“In this body, we are supposed to separate church from state. We're supposed to understand that people have the freedom to choose whatever religion they want,” she said. “By enforcing this, we take that right away from them.”

Those against the bill argued it would create a loophole to allow for more abortions in the state, and that fetuses conceived in rape deserved protection. Many presented religious arguments, saying that abortion kills an “innocent life” that “the Lord put in their womb.”

Debbie Melvin, one resident who spoke out against the bill, said, “A baby is the only beautiful thing that can come out of a rape.”

“Imposing the death penalty on an innocent child of a sex offender does nothing bad to the rapist, but nothing good for the woman,” she said.

Dr. Damon Cudihy, a Lafayette OBGYN who previously testified in favor of anti-abortion laws, presented misinformation that abortion causes mental health problems, what anti-abortion activists call “post-abortion syndrome.” The largest study on the effect of abortion access, “The Turnaway Study,” followed nearly 1,000 women in 21 states for five years and found no evidence of long-term mental health risks associated with abortion.

Rape and incest exceptions for abortion are extremely popular, even among Republican voters, according to both national and statewide polls. Boyd’s bill, and a similar bill authored by state Rep. Cedric Glover (D-Shreveport), failed along party lines. Republicans defeated both bills by votes of 10 to 5 and 9 to 5, respectively.

Louisiana Right to Life — which lobbied against the bills and has long fought against rape and incest exception for abortion laws — celebrated the votes, saying that “babies do not deserve to be killed because of the crimes of their biological father.”

Lift Louisiana, the abortion-rights group, said lawmakers “have chosen to overlook the suffering of rape and incest survivors in favor of a cruel position endorsed by extremists.”

Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast also spoke out against the vote, saying a ban without these exceptions leaves sexual assault survivors with two options: they’re either forced “to carry pregnancies to term against their will or try to find the resources to flee their state for abortion.”

The committee also heard testimony on a bill aimed at reducing fear and confusion about the ban in Louisiana hospitals. HB522 by Rep. Amiee Freeman (D-New Orleans) would eliminate the law’s 15-year prison penalty and reduce the $200,000 fine. That bill would have also allowed one physician to decide when a pregnancy is medically futile and an abortion can be performed — the law currently requires two physicians to sign off.

Both Nancy Davis and Katilyn Joshua, two Black women from Baton Rouge whose care was impacted by the abortion ban, testified in favor of the bill, as did Freehill, the New Orleans OBGYN. She said she’s treated patients who were turned away by other physicians.

“I've seen patients come to me who have been turned away at other hospitals, bleeding profusely in a miscarriage and process that there's no way to save the pregnancy. Unfortunately, there's nothing that you can do. And this woman is hemorrhaging. But the baby still had a heartbeat, so they did nothing to help her,” Freehill said. “I think that that's just a very dangerous situation.”

Dr. Evelyn Griffin, an OBGYN who’s spoken in support of the abortion ban in the past, said the law is clear and not challenging for physicians to apply.

Ben Clapper, the executive director of Louisiana Right to Life, has suggested in the past that some of the concerns raised by physicians and reporting on the impact of the law in hospitals and on women’s care has been driven by abortion-rights supporters who have “possibly manufactured concerns over the law.”

That bill, and one other aimed at the medical provisions of the abortion ban, were voluntarily deferred, meaning their future is unclear. The bills could possibly be reheard in the same or another House committee. A fifth abortion bill about medical provisions was referred to the House Health and Welfare committee.

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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