Thursday, June 6, 2019
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana voters will decide whether to rewrite the state constitution to ensure it doesn't offer protections for abortion rights, but not until the November 2020 presidential election.
A 79-20 House vote and 33-5 Senate vote Wednesday gave final passage to the legislation after the Democratic sponsor, Monroe Rep. Katrina Jackson, changed the ballot date.
Five other conservative states have enacted similar constitutional provisions, seeking to chip away at abortion rights for women.
Passage comes after Louisiana lawmakers also agreed to ban abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed that ban into law last week, making Louisiana the fifth state to enact the prohibition. Louisiana's law only takes effect, however, if Mississippi's ban is upheld by a federal appeals court.
Lawmakers on Wednesday also sent the governor another measure requiring abortions that are done via medication to be performed only at Louisiana's three licensed abortion clinics, not in a gynecologist's office. The House agreed 84-1 for the final version, and the Senate voted 32-5.
Supporters called the measures important "pro-life bills." In the Senate, they drew angry rebuke from two New Orleans Democratic senators, Karen Carter Peterson and J.P. Morrell.
"You're disrespecting women and you really don't care," said Peterson, chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party.
The House spent little time debating the measures Wednesday, with most of the focus on the date on which ballot voters will be asked to rewrite the constitution.
Jackson said she sought to push back the date for consideration until next year because more voters turn out for presidential elections.
Some Republicans wanted the proposal on the same October ballot as the governor's race, when it could energize conservative voters and stretch debates about abortion into the fall at the same time Edwards is seeking re-election to a second term. Edwards has drawn criticism in his own party from abortion rights supporters angered about his support of anti-abortion bills.
"Why wouldn't you want this to be put in place as soon as possible?" asked Rep. Blake Miguez, an Erath Republican.
"Because I'm always concerned about voter turnout," Jackson replied.
Miguez told her: "I would just like it to happen sooner rather than later."
With Jackson the sponsor of the bill, she was in control of its fate.
After the vote, Jackson said she had heard from lawmakers who worried it could drive voter turnout either from abortion rights supporters or abortion opponents, influencing statewide and legislative elections in 2019.
"When it was suggested by some colleagues that this may kind of impact whether or not somebody gets elected or not, I don't want a constitutional amendment I propose to ever impact that," she said. "I had members on both side of the aisle arguing about who it was going to drive out."
Lawmakers in conservative states are striking at the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. They are pushing new abortion restrictions, hoping a case that reaches the high court could be successful with two new conservative justices.
The effort to declare that Louisiana's constitution doesn't protect abortion rights would come into play if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Abortion foes want to ensure that if states can determine the legality of the procedure, a federal court couldn't rule the Louisiana Constitution confers rights that keep lawmakers from limiting or banning abortion. Legislators passed a law years ago prohibiting abortion if Louisiana if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
"This is strictly a bill to say that Louisiana is a pro-life state," said Sen. Beth Mizell, a Franklinton Republican.
The new language in Louisiana's constitution would read: "To protect human life, nothing in this constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion."
Abortion rights supporters say the constitutional change would lay the groundwork for outlawing abortions entirely in Louisiana.
Peterson objected to removal of language declaring lawmakers reserve the right to regulate and pass laws about abortion, including exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
"Why wouldn't we protect the victims that are traumatized?" Peterson asked.
Sen. Ryan Gatti, a Bossier City Republican, said the constitutional provision wouldn't "hinder us from coming back at any time" and writing such exceptions into state law.