Louisiana Moves to Ban Abortions After a Heartbeat Is Detected

On the heels of a spate of anti-abortion legislation passed in recent months across the South, Louisiana lawmakers voted on Wednesday to ban the procedure once the pulsing of what will become the fetus’s heart could be detected — a restriction, backed by the state’s Democratic governor, that could eventually prohibit abortions as early as six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy.

Several other states have passed versions of so-called fetal heartbeat bills this year, and Alabama approved a law about two weeks ago that would forbid nearly all abortions in the state.

But the Louisiana measure, coming at the tail end of a legislative season in which state after state considered bills to either restrict or protect abortion, stood out for the composition of the political coalition that rallied around it. The Republicans who control the Legislature endorsed the measure, but it was written by a Democratic state senator from Shreveport, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who is running for re-election this year, pledged his support.

“God values human life, and so do the people of Louisiana,” the senator, John Milkovich, said this month. “We believe this is an important step in dismantling the attack of the abortion cartel on our next generation.”

The Louisiana measure, which a House vote on Wednesday moved to Mr. Edwards’s desk, would require women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound test. An abortion would be forbidden if that test detects embryonic pulsing — a milestone that could occur before many women know they are pregnant — unless an abortion was necessary to save a woman’s life or to prevent a “serious risk” to her health.

The measure, which does not include any exceptions for cases of rape or incest, calls for doctors who perform abortions illegally to face up to two years in prison.

Opponents said the bill would harm women. “After spending years attacking abortion access, Louisiana politicians have sunk to a new low with a 6 week abortion ban that criminalizes providers and punishes women,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana warned before the vote in Baton Rouge, the state capital.

Critics of abortion rights hope that this year’s wave of far-reaching restrictions, which have also passed in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio, will lead the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that recognized a constitutional right for a woman to end a pregnancy.

[Here is how limits on abortion have changed across the states this year.]

While opponents of the restrictive new laws in the South and the Midwest have often found powerful allies in the Democratic Party, they have been more politically isolated at the Louisiana Capitol, in part because of the governor’s public support for the fetal heartbeat legislation.

Mr. Edwards has long opposed abortion rights, and his 2015 campaign was lifted by an advertisement in which his wife recalled the family’s decision to reject a doctor’s recommendation that she have an abortion because the child would be born with spina bifida.

“My position hasn’t changed: In eight years in the Legislature, I was a pro-life legislator, 100 percent with the Louisiana Right to Life,” Mr. Edwards said recently. “When I ran for governor, I said that I was pro-life, and so that’s something that’s consistent.”

Louisianans, Mr. Edwards argued, were “overwhelmingly pro-life,” and government records show that the number of abortions in the state has been declining. The State Department of Health said there were 8,084 abortions performed in Louisiana last year, down from 9,311 in 2015, the year Mr. Edwards was elected governor.

The Louisiana measure is not expected to take effect soon, even if Mr. Edwards swiftly signs it into law. Under the proposal, the Louisiana restriction would not be enforceable until a federal appellate court rules on a similar law that Mississippi passed in March.

On Friday, a Federal District Court judge temporarily blocked the Mississippi law, which was to take effect on July 1. The judge, Carlton W. Reeves, wrote that the law “prevents a woman’s free choice, which is central to personal dignity and autonomy.”

“This injury outweighs any interest the State might have in banning abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat,” the judge wrote. A delay in the law’s enforcement, the judge added, “will serve the public interest by protecting this established right and the rule of law.”

Opponents have condemned bills like Louisiana’s, which effectively outlaw abortion at six weeks, as wastes of time that run counter to decades of court rulings. Before Friday’s injunction in Mississippi, courts previously restricted similar measures in Arkansas, Kentucky, Iowa and North Dakota. The current constitutional standard, set out in Roe v. Wade, is that abortion is legal up to the point when the fetus could survive outside the womb — usually about 24 weeks.

“Under clear Supreme Court precedent, the 6 Week Ban is unquestionably unconstitutional,” the Mississippi law’s critics, including the Center for Reproductive Rights, argued in a court filing that could be a blueprint for a challenge to the Louisiana measure.

[Read more about what it really means to be six weeks pregnant.]

But champions of abortion restrictions, including the fetal heartbeat measures, contend that they have a duty, and an opportunity, to seek lasting change, now that Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh has joined the Supreme Court, perhaps tilting the court’s majority in their favor.

“Those of us who are elected to office recognize the seriousness of this issue and how important it is to the vast majority of our constituents,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi said in an interview this month. “I think that defending life is not about moving slow, defending life is not about taking a moderate position, defending life is not even really about taking half a loaf — even though we’d rather have half a loaf than none.”

[Read: A look inside the network of anti-abortion activists winning across the country.]

Judge Reeves’s decision is expected to shift the court battle to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which sits in New Orleans and considers appeals from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The ultimate word, though, is likely to rest with the Supreme Court.

In February, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked a different Louisiana effort to restrict abortion rights: a law that would require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The court is expected to agree to hear a challenge to the law in the coming months.

The heartbeat measure, Mr. Edwards acknowledged, would provoke a similarly protracted fight in the courts.

“I don’t anticipate that it’s going to go into operation, or into effect, I should say, right away,” he said. “That’s not the way these things typically work.”

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