Louisiana abortion clinics resume services after judge temporarily blocks ban

By: - June 27, 2022 8:36 pm
An abortion rights supporter sits outside a New Orleans clinic

An abortion rights supporter sits outside a New Orleans clinic June 24, 2022, after the U.S. Supreme Court overruled its 1973 landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. It’s one of three Louisiana abortion clinics that will resume services after a state judge temporarily stopped a state abortion ban from taking effect.. (Piper Hutchinson/Louisiana Illuminator)

NEW ORLEANS – Louisiana’s three abortion clinics will resume providing services after a state judge temporarily lifted the state’s abortion ban Monday. 

Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport and the Delta Clinic of Baton Rouge will start providing abortions again Tuesday, and Women’s Health Care Center in New Orleans will see patients for abortions Thursday, according to spokespeople for the clinics.

The Shreveport clinic, which is open Monday through Saturday, will continue with its appointments for abortions and other services for the rest of the week. Patients who were already scheduled for abortion appointments this week will be a priority. The clinic is trying fit in people who had their abortions canceled last Friday and Saturday when the state’s abortion ban initially took effect.

The Baton Rouge clinic will only see patients who already have abortion appointments scheduled. It is typically open only on Tuesdays, and none of its patients have been affected yet by the state’s prohibition. 

The New Orleans clinic is booking appointments for new abortion patients and will prioritize people who had their abortion appointments canceled Friday because of the state ban, said Amy Irvin, a spokesperson for the clinic.

Abortions are legal again in Louisiana until at least July 8, when Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Ethel Simms Julien will hold an initial hearing over a lawsuit challenging the statewide abortion ban. A different Civil District Court judge, Robin Giarrusso, issued the temporary restraining order of the state abortion law Monday. 

All three of Louisiana’s clinics stopped providing abortions within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning its landmark Roe v. Wade opinion Friday. The court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization scuttled the constitutional right to an abortion and was supposed to pave the way for Louisiana to automatically prohibit abortion through a state “trigger” law. 

The Louisiana Department of Health sent notices to the three clinics Friday evening saying that they had to abide by the statewide abortion ban, which prohibits almost all abortions by medication or surgery. Exceptions include when a person might die or suffer a life-altering injury from the pregnancy. 

Lawsuit claims conflicts in state law, guidance

The Shreveport abortion clinic, its administrator Kathaleen Pittman and a group of medical students in New Orleans who support abortion rights  filed the lawsuit Monday morning in Orleans Civil District Court.  Its named defendants are Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and state Health Secretary Courtney Phillips, who works for Gov. John Bel Edwards, an anti-abortion Democrat. 

“It is unfortunate that there are those who continue to utilize confusion, misinformation, and deceit as scare tactics in the face of the recent SCOTUS Dobbs decision,” Landry said in a written statement Monday. “We are fully prepared to defend these laws in our state courts, just as we have in our federal courts.”

The plaintiffs have argued that Louisiana’s numerous, conflicting abortion laws are “vague” and don’t meet the requirement for fair and equal treatment under the state constitution. The medical students in the lawsuit have also alleged that they won’t be able to get the education and training they need in Louisiana to become effective doctors.

“They face even more difficulty being trained in techniques for abortion care and miscarriage management, as the doctors who conduct the training are uncertain of whether they can provide such training and guidance under the current state of the law,” wrote Ellie Schilling, attorney for the plaintiffs, in a legal brief.

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The state has not one but three trigger laws containing abortion bans that are at odds with each other, according to Schilling. The three laws – one passed in 2006 and two others signed just a week ago – contain conflicting definitions of an illegal abortion and different penalties for performing one.

They range from maximum penalties of a year in prison and $1,000 fine to 20 years in prison and a $200,000 fine, depending on which law would be implemented, Schilling wrote. 

“The Trigger Bans inconsistently define what constitutes an abortion and thus what conduct is prohibited, making it impossible for an ordinary citizen to determine what exactly is illegal,” she said.

The trigger laws also have different starting points for when terminating a pregnancy becomes illegal, according to Schilling. It’s not clear whether life starts after the fertilization of an egg by sperm or the implantation of that fertilized egg into the uterus, she wrote.

The most recent abortion ban, which Edwards signed last week, also allows for a legal abortion if two physicians determine that a pregnancy is “futile,” but doesn’t clearly define what a “futile” pregnancy is, Schilling wrote. The state health department is supposed to come up with regulations that outline what constitutes a “futile” pregnancy, but hasn’t had a chance to do so yet, she said.

Schilling also argued that Landry, Edwards and the health department sent out conflicting statements last week about which trigger ban was in effect and to what extent. It’s also unclear how the ban will be enforced, leaving too much discretion to local law enforcement officials, she said.

Confusion surrounds effective date

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion groups both acknowledged last week that there could be some confusion surrounding the most recent abortion ban law because large portions of Act 545, sponsored by Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, might not go into effect until Aug. 1.

Louisiana legislation meant to take effect at a different time than Aug. 1 typically has language at the bottom of the bill explicitly that states another start date. Jackson’s legislation only has language that made one section of it effective immediately. Other portions don’t include an effective date, so it could default to Aug. 1, Ben Clapper, executive director of Louisiana Right to Life, said last week.

Sections of the bill that could be delayed until the start of August include those that allow for a legal abortion for a “futile” pregnancy. If this language isn’t in effect until Aug. 1, Clapper said that exception might not be available.

There’s also “clarifying language” about emergency contraception in a section of Jackson’s bill that might not take effect until Aug. 1. Clapper said he doesn’t believe legal use of emergency contraception is in jeopardy if Jackson’s bill isn’t in effect because an exception for contraception, more broadly, was included in a 2006 abortion ban that took effect.

The confusion over the start date for Jackson’s bill wasn’t intentional. It could be the result of a drafting error. Jackson could not be reached for comment Monday.

The bill was completely rewritten during the last few days of the legislative session, and requests from abortion rights supporters in the Legislature to have more time to review the bill were rebuffed.

Lawmakers complained that they were being asked to vote on 15 pages of amendments to the bill without having any time to read  them over or ask experts for their opinions, but anti-abortion legislators would not delay the vote. The Legislature approved the bill within a few hours of its massive rewrite being made public.

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that  Orleans Parish District Judge Robin Giarrusso would oversee the first hearing on the lawsuit challenging the state abortion ban. Giarrusso issued the temporary restraining order blocking the state abortion ban, but will not be presiding over the hearing. 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.