By Tryfon Boukouvidis, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana House on Wednesday passed in a 79-23 vote anti-abortion legislation that would effectively ban abortions in the state, echoing similar legislative efforts by other Republican-controlled legislatures in the South.
A bill by Sen. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, would outlaw the abortion of a fetus with a detectable heartbeat, which usually occurs around six weeks and before many women are aware they are pregnant.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a pro-life Democrat who is up for re-election this fall, commented after the vote that he would sign the bill into law.
“In 2015, I ran for governor as a pro-life candidate after serving as a pro-life legislator for eight years. As governor, I have been true to my word and my beliefs on this issue,” the governor said in a statement.
“As I prepare to sign this bill, I call on the overwhelming bipartisan majority of legislators who voted for it to join me in continuing to build a better Louisiana,” Edwards added.
Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, who presented the bill, said, “In Louisiana we have a culture of love of life, love of family, and love of God. Nothing is more precious to any of us than the heartbeat [of a baby].”
The proposal does not exempt pregnancies that result from rape or incest.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, proposed on the House floor an amendment that would have exempted such cases from the ban. His amendment failed as only 35 lawmakers voted in favor and 67 opposed it.
“I am not man enough to tell a woman who has had her insides ripped apart and been raped, ‘live with it,’” James said. “I’m not man enough to do that. This is common sense. We cannot force a woman to live with that trauma.”
Opposing James’ amendment, Rep. Beryl Amedée, R-Houma, urged victims of rape to see the child as another victim and to put the baby up for adoption if they do not want to keep it.
“I want you to remember that having an abortion doesn’t mean that you’re no longer a mother, it means that now you are the mother of a deceased baby,” Amedee said.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, joined several of his Republican colleagues in opposing James’ amendment. “We don’t punish children in this country for the sins of their fathers,” Seabaugh said.
Seabaugh added that he would support legislation that would allow a rape victim who became pregnant as a result to pursue the death penalty for her rapist.
“If you want choice, let [the mother] choose to execute the rapist. That’s fine,” he said.
Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, who co-sponsored James’ amendment, said under Seabaugh’s reasoning Louisiana would not be “as pro-life as we say.”
“It should be unconscionable for us to sit here and dictate a woman’s body,” Marcelle said. “How many times have you been pregnant, or raped? I think we need to sit back and take a hard look at what we’re trying to legislate.”
Milkovich’s ‘fetal heartbeat’ bill has received strong bipartisan support. The Senate already approved it in a 31-5 vote earlier this month.
Edwards and Louisiana Democrats, some of whom have either offered or supported restrictive abortion legislation, stand in stark contrast with the national Democratic platform that seeks to protect a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion.
“Unfortunately, Republicans and Democrats in this state are making political careers off of this issue that will have dire and severe consequences on women and families in Louisiana,” said Amy Irvin, executive director of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, a pro-choice group.
Earlier this month, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the most restrictive abortion ban in the country into law. The legislation does not provide exemptions for rape and incest victims. It also charges doctors who perform the procedure with a felony that carries up to a 99-year sentence.
Several states have already authorized similar bans. In addition to Alabama, legislatures in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Missouri, Texas, West Virginia and Florida have introduced bills to implement six-week abortion bans.
Abortion after six weeks remains legal in these states, however, because the bans have either not taken effect yet or have been blocked by a judge.
A federal judge temporarily halted a Mississippi law last week that prohibited abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected.
The Louisiana ‘fetal heartbeat’ bill would not go in effect until the Mississippi law is approved and it would likely be challenged by a federal court.
Earlier this year, the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to block a Louisiana law that prohibited doctors without admitting privileges to nearby hospitals from performing abortions.
In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized abortions nationally under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
In a phone interview, Irvin said abortion is a safe and legal procedure, but the proposed law would force women to travel out of state to seek an abortion or give birth to kids that they cannot afford to raise.
Louisiana currently has three abortion clinics, located in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport. In the early 1990s, the state had 17 abortion clinics, most of which were closed due to anti-abortion state regulations.
Irvin, a pro-choice advocate, said the ‘heartbeat’ bill would also put women at risk, citing the high rate of maternal and infant mortality in Louisiana, and health conditions or fetal anomalies that could complicate a pregnancy.
Louisiana ranks 47th in the country in maternal mortality with almost 45 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Maternal mortality rates and neonatal mortality are higher in states with more abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The proposal sparked protests in the state earlier this month, including a pro-choice rally in New Orleans and protesters pouring fake blood on floors of the State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
During this legislative session Louisiana lawmakers have supported several pro-life bills that would further regulate or prohibit abortions in the state.
The House briefly considered a proposal by Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, that would prohibit women from obtaining medication abortions from a gynecologist’s office. As a result, women seeking chemical abortions would have to visit one of the state’s abortion clinics, Hoffmann’s bill proposed.
The House also considered a constitutional amendment by Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Baton Rouge, which would amend Louisiana’s constitution and strike out any legal right to having an abortion or securing public funds for the procedure.
The sponsors of these bills rejected Senate amendments to their bills, so the House is now expected to discuss them in the following days.
Milkovich and Hodges commented on the successful passage of the ‘fetal heartbeat’ bill outside the State Capitol.
In presenting the ‘heartbeat’ bill that the House easily passed, Hodges said she felt proud.
“I think life is always worth saving,” she said.
Lauren Heffker and Hunter Lovell contributed to this report.