Louisiana officials criticize Supreme Court’s rejection of state’s abortion restriction

Reproductive rights advocates say ruling merely maintains status quo

In this file photo from December 2019, Representative Mike Johnson, sits during the House Judiciary Committee's markup of Articles of Impeachment against President Donald Trump at the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, DC. Johnson defended a Louisiana abortion restriction in court and said the U.S. Supreme Court overstepped its bounds on June 29, 2020, when a majority overturned it. (Photo by Jonathan Newton-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Louisiana officials decried a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday that struck down a state abortion law and vowed to keep fighting to restrict access to the procedure. At the same time, advocates for reproductive rights breathed a sigh of relief that abortion access won’t be further restricted in a state where only three clinics provide the service. 

“This outrageous decision shows us yet again that our struggle is far from over, and we have to reaffirm our commitment to the cause of protecting the safety and the sanctity of every single human life,” U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, a staunch abortion rights opponent, said in a statement. A lawyer who helped defend the law in district court, Johnson represents Louisiana’s 4th District in the northwest corner of the state, where the clinic at the center of the Supreme Court case is located.

In a call with reporters Monday, Johnson said the court “overstepped its bounds” and set a “devastating” precedent that will embolden advocates for reproductive rights. 

GOP Sen. John Kennedy, meanwhile, called the decision “disappointing” and pledged to “keep fighting for the life and health of every person, including vulnerable women and children.” 

And U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R), whose district includes part of New Orleans and most of its suburbs, called the decision “a major step backwards,” adding: “We will not back down or relent.”

Steffani Bangel, executive director of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, a nonprofit that helps people pay for and access abortion services, called it an “important” but “self-evident win.” The ruling, she said, is not a “sweeping assertion” of the right to abortion but rather preserves the status quo. “It just said, ‘Hey, we decided this already.’”

At issue is a 2014 Louisiana law that requires physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Though championed by Republicans, the Louisiana law was written by Katrina Jackson, a Black woman from Monroe who was a state representative then and is a state senator now. Sen. Jackson, who has called abortion “modern-day genocide” released a video expressing disappointment in Monday’s decision.

“I am disappointed that today’s Supreme Court decision strikes down Louisiana’s commonsense law that I authored to protect women injured in abortion facilities,” Jackson said. “Once again, unelected justices have substituted their policy preferences over the will of the people of my great state.”

Jackson’s disappointment was shared by the state’s most prominent anti-abortion Democrat, Gov. John Bel Edwards, who served in the House with Jackson and issued a statement:  “While I voted for the law in question and am disappointed, I respect the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision and trust that Louisiana and our nation will continue to move forward.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights challenged the law on behalf of June Medical Services, the corporate name of a Shreveport-area clinic that offers abortion services.

Johnson argued the law was needed to protect women from substandard health care. However, the Shreveport clinic reported that over 23 years its doctors had performed around 70,000 abortions and only four of those patients were admitted to a hospital for complications.

In 2017, a district court judge overturned the law on the grounds that it offers no benefits to women’s health that justify the burdens it places on abortion access. Also, in response to the state’s claim that qualified doctors should be able to get admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, the district court supervised four Louisiana doctors for more than 18 months as they tried to gain admitting privileges at 13 hospitals. The court found that many of those hospitals denied doctors privileges for reasons that had nothing to do with the providers’ medical credentials.

After calling the Supreme Court’s ruling a continuation of the status quo, Bangel said the status quo fails to meet Louisianans’ needs, pointing out that the state has nearly 5 million people and only three clinics offering abortion care.

“We’re thrilled that it hasn’t gotten worse,” she said, “but the reality is many people in our community already can’t access abortion and they already can’t afford (abortion). That’s the entire reason that the New Orleans Abortion Fund exists.”

89 abortion laws

In 2017, nearly 10,000 abortions were provided in Louisiana, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice think tank in Washington, D.C. 

Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport are the only places with clinics.

“We are living in an abortion desert in a lot of ways already,” Bangel said, a situation made worse, she said, by dozens of laws restricting access to the procedure.

Louisiana has enacted 89 laws restricting access to abortion since the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, recognized the right to the procedure in 1973. That’s more than any other state.

The state limits access to the procedure in numerous ways, including by requiring patients to receive state-directed counseling and an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion. Insurance plans offered in the state’s health exchange may not cover abortion, and the use of telemedicine to administer medication abortion is prohibited. Louisiana has also enacted a “trigger” law that would outlaw nearly all abortions if the procedure is ever held unconstitutional.

Such laws are designed to “legislate abortion care out of existence,” Guttmacher Institute President Herminia Palacio said in a statement.

Bangel said she hoped the Supreme Court’s decision on Monday will dampen efforts to restrict abortion through “admitting privileges” laws like those in Texas and Louisiana. But she doesn’t expect pro-life groups in Louisiana and other states to stop pushing for other ways to restrict access to the procedure.

As a state representative, Jackson authored a 2019 law that will have Louisiana voters decide in November if they want to add language to the state constitution explicitly stating that “nothing in the constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.”

Jackson said in an interview the week before Monday’s ruling that her concern for mother and child doesn’t stop at the child’s birth. “We have a lot of whole-life advocates now who understand that it is not just enough to ask a woman not to have an abortion,” she said, “but to also advocate for the ability for her to be able to take care of her child afterward, to have programs in place that offer a hand up and not a hand out so that the families can live better lives.”

She cited programs like Medicaid expansion, the food assistance program SNAP, free and reduced lunch for school children and federal Pell Grants that help people with financial need pay for college, as evidence of social services available for low-income families in Louisiana. Jackson said the state still needs to work on providing more comprehensive sex education and raising the minimum wage.

“Is it a little bit more difficult?” Jackson asked, referring to poor women struggling to support their children. “Yeah, some choices we make make life a little bit more difficult.”

“We know good and doggone well we don’t have the social safety nets that we need,” said Lakeesha Harris, reproductive justice and sexual health program director for Women With A Vision, a New Orleans nonprofit that works to improve the lives of marginalized women and their families. “Everybody does not have access to health care in Louisiana, especially Black and Brown people, nor do we have the social safety nets when we need support as parents.”

Harris said people seeking abortions often already have children and they say, “Look, I can’t afford another child. I just can’t mentally, financially, physically or otherwise do it.”

“So they’ve already thought about that,” Harris said. “They thought about their housing situation. They thought about all of the things before they arrive at the abortion clinic.”