Women comprise 54-percent of the registered voters in the state of Louisiana, but men continue to dominate the Legislature, with women making up just 14-percent of the representation. That makes for some incredibly obtuse debates, when it comes to bills targeting what are primarily women’s issues.
Take the Tuesday morning discussion of a measure that would set up a Women’s Incarceration Task Force. Authored by Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge), the group would develop recommendations of policies and practices for responding to the differential needs of female offenders.
“Our whole incarceration system is based on the assumption that offenders are all male,” explained Syreta Martin with Operation Restoration. “Women’s unique sets of needs, including things like reproductive health and motherhood, are not taken into account.”
Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville) took issue with what he called the “overreach” of the lines of inquiry for the proposed task force.
“On page 3, it says this group will ‘develop practices and processes throughout the criminal justice system’. That exceeds the parameters of ‘women’s incarceration’,” Bacala pointed out. “I’m worried this will get into things that are contrary to the will of this legislative body.”
“This really does look at the issues of women, requires the gathering of data, and makes recommendations to the Department of Corrections,” Smith replied. “Why is that a problem?”
Bacala couldn’t bring himself to come right out and say he objected to the part of the measure that states “all women include transgender women.” Instead, he tried to verbally dance around it.
“This part about ‘affirmation of their self-determined gender identity’ – that’s something, quite frankly, I’m uncomfortable with,” Bacala said, while squirming in his chair.
“That’s unfortunate, but the reality is there are these people in our society,” Smith responded firmly. “And we have to have some kind of direction on how to deal with these individuals.”
“I can see the outcome being stacked against most of the legislative will, especially when the governor has all the power to appoint task force members.,” Bacala responded, trying to deflect attention from his discomfort, and cast aspersions on the governor instead. “I can foresee a scenario where we come back and say we need to offer, uh…hormone therapy to those that identify as the opposite sex. I think this is stacked toward one particular goal, and that’s not in keeping with where I think we ought to go.”
That’s when Smith unloaded on him – politely – but forcefully.
“You’re preconceiving this is going to end up with a recommendation on something that we have no policies on right now, but you have the authority, as a legislative body, to determine whether any recommendations are accepted or not. It concerns me when we constantly ask this body, forget the reality of the lives we live in, in this society. And we constantly want to push things under the rug, because there are differences among people in our society.
“We don’t have any policies to address these differences, and these people exist in our prisons today!” Smith reminded. “So why shouldn’t there be someone to look at data, look at information, and give DOC some direction to assist with it?”
“I don’t understand the problem with a task force,” Rep. Ted James (D- Baton Rouge) interjected. Clearly enjoying Rep. Bacala’s discomfiture, James then poked at him a bit.
“I’m amenable to adding a House member to the task force – Rep. Bacala, if he wants,” James said with a chuckle, eliciting appreciative laughter from some committee members and post of the audience.
In the end, the proposal was approved and sent to the full House, without opposition.
Debate on another bill Tuesday afternoon showed a marked absence of any discussion of its impact on women, even though it’s aimed directly at them: SB 181.
“Babies are created in the image of God,” the author, Sen John Milkovich (D-Shreveport) began. “And this will make it illegal to kill unborn babies after 15 weeks. This could save thousands of babies from being killed in abortion mills.”
Milkovich wasn’t shy about sharing his end game, saying, “My goal is to outlaw all abortions. It’s a curse. It’s a scourge. It’s a barbaric practice.”
Members of that Senate Judiciary committee asked about Mississippi’s 15-week ban, passed a couple of months ago and enjoined by the federal court almost immediately. In light of Louisiana’s current fiscal uncertainty, shouldn’t the state wait and see how that court challenge turns out?
“I am aware that defending this will cost the state money, but I don’t think we should refrain from doing the right thing because of money,” Milkovich responded. “I can’t think of a better expenditure.”
But Ellie Schilling, the attorney representing Louisiana plaintiffs in court challenges to the state’s increasingly restrictive abortion laws, argued this bill – if passed – is guaranteed to waste already limited taxpayer dollars.
“Since 2014, six lawsuits have been filed, and all are still in the courts. One, filed in 2016, challenges all 7 abortion laws passed that year. In all of these cases, in general, the state is losing,” Schilling advised.
“It’s difficult to determine exactly how much it’s costing, but millions have already been spent on Louisiana hiring outside counsel. With the state’s unprecedented budget problems, it’s detrimental to pass legislation that will lead to more costly litigation.”
Even Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel for the Bioethics Defense Fund – which assists in crafting and defending abortion restriction laws – argued against passage of SB 181.
“This bill will unintentionally weaken Louisiana pro-life law,” she said. “Because it’s due to be placed into the part of the state’s criminal code that contains our 2006 trigger law – banning all abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned, it will supercede that trigger law, with a 15-week abortion ban being the latest expression of legislative will. Then if Roe v. Wade is overturned, Louisiana law would still permit abortion up to 15 weeks.”
Committee members also expressed curiosity that the “usual group of suspects” – pro-life organizations – were not in attendance at the hearing, nor had any of them filed cards in support of the bill.
“I can’t speak on behalf of any of those groups,” Bordlee said, “But this instrument has the unintended consequence of stripping the current trigger law.”
Milkovich continued to argue for his bill, saying, “Pass it and enforce it immediately,” though committee members were leaning toward deferral so Bordlee could work with Milkovich to eliminate the “unintended consequences.”
Then Sen. Jonathan Perry lost his nerve, saying, “I want to move this favorably with assurance, with a promise that Sen. Milkovich and Ms. Bordlee will work on the language. I think, as it is, it can hurt our pro-life laws. But I’m not going to be accused of killing a pro-life bill.”
On a 4-1 vote, the committee concurred.
Not word one, nor question one, about the woman – the citizen – whose body is hosting this potential human being. The bill makes no exceptions for rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother, and it makes it a felony – punishable by ten years at hard labor – for anyone performing an abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy.