After Tense Debate, Louisiana Scraps Plan to Classify Abortion as Homicide

Louisiana lawmakers torpedoed legislation on Thursday that would have classified abortion as homicide, overwhelmingly rejecting a proposal with far-reaching implications that included making it possible for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against women who end a pregnancy.

The measure was one of the most aggressive new restrictions on reproductive rights that conservative state lawmakers across the country had considered with the Supreme Court appearing poised to overturn the constitutional right to abortion.

But ultimately, lawmakers upheld what has long been a boundary for many in the anti-abortion movement who have resisted seeking criminal punishment for women who obtain an abortion. The bill disintegrated before reaching a final vote on Thursday after an amendment essentially dismantling it was widely approved by the House of Representatives.

Louisiana is a deeply conservative state where elected officials — including the Democratic governor — have backed even the most stringent restrictions on abortion access. Yet this proposal failed with some of the most influential anti-abortion groups in the state coming out in opposition, criticizing the legislation as a misguided effort saddled with a range of dangerous consequences, including potentially limiting treatment for women who have a miscarriage.

“Pro-life bills fly off this floor with little to no opposition and they have for decades,” Alan Seabaugh, the Republican representative behind the amendment, said during debate over the legislation that grew tense and personal. He and another critic accused the sponsor of the legislation, Danny McCormick, of failing to understand the content of the bill and the repercussions it could have.

“This bill will not prevent a single abortion from occurring — not one,” Mr. Seabaugh said, adding that if the bill as written were to pass, “it will be enjoined the next day because Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land.”

“It’s not the law!” supporters of the bill sitting in the gallery called out.

“Liar!” some of them shouted.

From Opinion: A Challenge to Roe v. Wade

Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

  • Gail Collins: The push to restrict women’s reproductive rights is about punishing women who want to have sex for pleasure.
  • Jamelle Bouie: The logic of the draft ruling is an argument that could sweep more than just abortion rights out of the circle of constitutional protection.
  • Matthew Walther, Editor of a Catholic Literary Journal: Those who oppose abortion should not discount the possibility that its proscription will have some regrettable consequences. Even so, it will be worth it.
  • Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan: If Roe falls, abortion will become a felony in Michigan. I have a moral obligation to stand up for the rights of the women of the state I represent.

After the amendment passed, Mr. McCormick, a Republican, asked for the bill to be taken off the House calendar, preventing a final vote.

The bill advanced in the Republican-controlled House after it was passed by a committee last week with a 7-2 vote. It gained momentum after a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court showed that a majority of justices were in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling establishing the constitutional right to an abortion.

Louisiana is one of roughly a dozen states with a so-called trigger law in place that would swiftly make abortion unlawful if Roe v. Wade were reversed. But supporters of the new proposal argued that the trigger law did not go far enough and pushed for the bill defining personhood as beginning from the moment of fertilization.

“We want equal protection for all humans, and we believe that life begins at conception,” said Jeff Durbin, a pastor who traveled with members of his congregation from Arizona to cheer on the proposal on Thursday.

The legislation prompted an immediate backlash from activists in support of abortion access. Critics condemned it as “reckless” and predicted that it would have devastating consequences reaching beyond abortion, arguing that it would criminalize in vitro fertilization and some forms of birth control.

Mimi Spiehler, 39, drove to the Capitol from New Orleans with two friends to speak out against the proposed bill.

“I know how hard it is to be a mother and I wanted my kids,” she said. “We shouldn’t be forcing women to have them.”

Ms. Spiehler said she was 10 weeks pregnant once when she learned that the fetus had not survived. Her body did not recognize the pregnancy loss or expel the pregnancy tissue, however, so she needed medical intervention. “Had this happened after this bill passed,” she said, “I wouldn’t have had access to that necessary health care.”

Opposition over the proposal had swelled beyond the usual lines in the debate over reproduction rights, with some of the most prominent anti-abortion leaders in Louisiana raising major concerns. One group, Louisiana Right to Life, said in a statement that “our longstanding policy is that abortion-vulnerable women should not be treated as criminals.”

Detractors from across the political spectrum also noted that the bill would have called for judges and law enforcement officials in Louisiana to simply ignore Roe v. Wade or any other federal ruling that contradicted the legislation.

The State of Roe v. Wade

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What is Roe v. Wade? Roe v. Wade is a landmark Supreme court decision that legalized abortion across the United States. The 7-2 ruling was announced on Jan. 22, 1973. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, a modest Midwestern Republican and a defender of the right to abortion, wrote the majority opinion.

What was the case about? The ruling struck down laws in many states that had barred abortion, declaring that they could not ban the procedure before the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb. That point, known as fetal viability, was around 28 weeks when Roe was decided. Today, most experts estimate it to be about 23 or 24 weeks.

What else did the case do? Roe v. Wade created a framework to govern abortion regulation based on the trimesters of pregnancy. In the first trimester, it allowed almost no regulations. In the second, it allowed regulations to protect women’s health. In the third, it allowed states to ban abortions so long as exceptions were made to protect the life and health of the mother. In 1992, the court tossed that framework, while affirming Roe’s essential holding.

What would happen if Roe were overturned? Individual states would be able to decide whether and when abortions would be legal. The practice would likely be banned or restricted heavily in about half of them, but many would continue to allow it. Thirteen states have so-called trigger laws, which would immediately make abortion illegal if Roe were overturned.

“Your bill clearly violates the separations of powers doctrine,” Barry Ivey, a Republican representative, said to Mr. McCormick during the floor debate, asking if he recognized that. Mr. McCormick did not directly answer him.

“It’s OK that you don’t understand,” Mr. Ivey replied. “You wouldn’t have brought this if you did.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards signaled his opposition on Wednesday, calling the bill “patently unconstitutional.”

“To suggest that a woman would be jailed for an abortion is simply absurd,” Mr. Edwards said in a separate statement on Wednesday. “This legislation is radical, and it goes far beyond simply being pro-life.”

Mr. Edwards is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. But he has a history of ardent support for anti-abortion legislation, such as a state law that bars abortions, including in cases of rape and incest, at any time after fetal cardiac activity can be detected — a move that angered many in his own party.

Still, prosecutions against those who obtain abortions has remained a line that many anti-abortion activists were unwilling to cross. The strength of that line was underscored when Donald J. Trump, while campaigning for president, was assailed for saying that women who seek abortions should be subject to “some form of punishment.” He later walked back his statement. “The woman is a victim in this case, as is the life in her womb,” Mr. Trump said.

But supporters of the legislation in Louisiana were defiant even as their bill attracted opposition. They contended that an urgent effort to halt access to abortion in Louisiana was necessary regardless of the Supreme Court decision. Their logic: States had made other moves that contradicted federal law. Abortion, they said, should be no different.

As he introduced the legislation on Thursday, Mr. McCormick urged his colleagues to follow their moral compass. He argued that it did not interfere with access to contraception or in vitro fertilization, and that he believed that the proposal would protect women contemplating abortion.

“We are faced with a moral and ethical decision to make,” Mr. McCormick said on the House floor. “Politics should never decide who lives and who dies — not in America.”

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