What does the new anti-abortion amendment really mean for Louisiana?

Amendment is one of nearly 90 similar restrictions

By: - November 6, 2020 7:00 pm

Protesters at the Supreme Court in March 2020, when the justices were hearing arguments in June Medical Services LLC v. Russo. Robin Bravender/States Newsroom

Far from being a mere symbolic gesture, the passage of Louisiana’s anti-abortion constitutional amendment on Tuesday cements any future abortion prohibitions in the state if Roe v. Wade is ever weakened or overturned.  

The amendment, which passed by an overwhelming 62 percent, adds Article I, Section 20.1 to declare that “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.”

State Sen. Katrina Jackson of Monroe introduced the bill that placed the amendment on the ballot. A Democrat who has led both the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and Legislative Women’s Caucus, Jackson may break the national mold of pro-lifers, but her views are not uncommon among Louisiana Democrats with strong religious beliefs such as Gov. John Bel Edwards.

An active congregant of Riverside Missionary Baptist Church, Jackson acknowledges her faith “in all areas of her life,” according to her biography on the state senate’s website. “Katrina attributes her accomplishments to not just having a dream, but having a dream that lines up with God’s plan for her life. She believes her footsteps are ordered by God and every day she works to allow God to guide her in the process of realizing her dream,” her biography states.

In a phone interview, Jackson said she was motivated to introduce the amendment after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled last year that a woman’s right to abortion was protected by the Kansas Constitution in addition to the U.S. Constitution. This meant that abortion rights would still be protected in Kansas if Roe v. Wade were ever overturned. 

Similar rulings have been handed down by courts in several other states. Court rulings in West Virginia and Tennessee also affirmed the right to an abortion, but lawmakers in those states later amended their constitutions to dismantle those rights.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, most states banned or severely restricted abortion. As long as Roe remains intact, abortion will be a federal right to women across the entire country. However, both supporters and opponents of abortion believe the Supreme Court is now more likely to overturn or weaken Roe because conservatives have a large majority with the recent addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

“I didn’t want our constitution to remain silent,” Sen. Jackson said, referring to the future possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade. 

Jackson said she particularly wanted to make sure there was no right to government-funded abortion in Louisiana — a move lawmakers in other states have also found successful.

“The funding part of it came from ensuring that we can’t take taxpayer dollars for the funding of abortion,” Jackson said. “I thought it was necessary, and 62 percent of the people in Louisiana also thought it was necessary.”

But opponents say the funding aspect of the amendment was a calculated tactic designed to confuse and scare voters into thinking their taxes could be spent on abortions unless the amendment was adopted.

“It was a scare tactic,” 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. “You can’t get federal funding or state funding for abortion because of the Hyde amendment. The government has never ever funded abortion in this state.”

Passed in 1976, the Hyde Amendment is a federal provision barring the use of tax dollars to pay for abortion except to save the life of the woman or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape.

Louisiana’s newly-adopted amendment is far from being the only law to prevent abortions if Roe is ever overturned. In fact, the state has enacted 89 abortion restrictions since 1973, which is more restrictions than any other state in the country. Some of them, such as the “trigger ban” are much more restrictive than Jackson’s amendment. 

In 2006, Louisiana legislators passed a law that would automatically “trigger” if the federal abortion right is overturned. The law criminalizes the action of doctors or others who assist a woman in having an abortion, carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

“It is already difficult for many patients to access abortion care in Louisiana,” said Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, director of the National Abortion Federation, which has three member clinics in Louisiana. “And these restrictions most hurt the people who already face barriers to getting good care: people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, people with low incomes and young people.”

Harris agreed and pointed out that abortions would still happen regardless of their legality. 

“Abortions are going to still happen,” Harris said. “We know that because of history. So the criminalization aspect of this amendment comes into play. It is very intentional to criminalize the person seeking an abortion and anyone assisting that person. This law cements that within our constitution.”

The only possibility of recourse for pro-choice activists in Louisiana is to try to introduce their own ballot measure, but Harris said her organization cannot afford that option. Instead, they are concentrating efforts on supporting the Roe v. Wade decision, she said. 

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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