Barefoot, Pregnant, and In Her Office

One thing is for certain: you can’t say the Good Ol’ Boys club in the Louisiana Legislature doesn’t have balls. On the same day Tom Schedler resigned as Secretary of State, resulting from a lawsuit filed claiming years of sexual harassment, the leader of the House GOP Caucus argued for passage of a law to punish the state’s female Health Secretary for – in effect – not being at lawmakers’ beck and call. And less than 24 hours later, a state senator argued that women should not have the right to make decisions regarding their own bodies. Tom Schedler’s resignation came Tuesday, following several months of calls for him to step down. In February, long-time employee Dawn Ross sued the state and Schedler personally for harassment. Schedler publicly denied the accusation, calling it “a consensual sexual relationship”, while Ross has insisted his advances were always unwelcome. The governor and other politicians called for his resignation, but it wasn’t until the Advocate published copies of emails and messages acquired through a public records request that both of Louisiana’s Republican U.S. Senators, Kennedy and Cassidy, also issued statements saying Schedler should resign. Tuesday afternoon, while the Capitol was still buzzing about the Secretary of State’s exit, Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria) brought his HB 849 to the House floor for a vote. It would prohibit state department heads from engaging in any paid outside activities, while requiring them to work a minimum of 40 hours per week. The bill did not apply to statewide elected officials who head state departments, however – only to those appointed as agency heads. One of the last bills to be filed for this session, the measure would have imposed a $5000 dollar-per-day fine on any department chief that violated that law. Though the House GOP caucus chair would smirk when asked, it was generally understood to be taking aim at Dr. Rebeka Gee, head of the state Health Department. Living and frequently working in New Orleans – where more than half of her department’s employees are stationed – Gee also spends a half day or so every other month practicing medicine at University Hospital in New Orleans, keeping her skills and licensing active. Her overall busy schedule kept her from appearing every time the Appropriations committee discussed her department’s budget, prompting complaints by Republican committee members, who suggested publicly that she was not doing her job by not showing up every time they thought she should. Harris serves on that committee. “I think the taxpayers expect these folks running these large departments to devote 100% of their effort to running that department,” Harris told the full House. “They make a huge salary to run an agency, overseeing billions of taxpayer dollars.” Rep. Chad Brown (D-Plaquemine) asked, “Why does this bill only address appointed department heads? Statewide elected officials are also part of the executive branch, and are department heads. Why aren’t they included?” “Because I didn’t include them,” Harris answered. “The Attorney General heads the Department of Justice. He has multiple agencies under him, with multi-million dollar budgets,” Brown remarked. “Why are we not demanding the same accountability for him?” “Because we can demand accountability as voters, and we can vote them out of office,” Harris replied. “Help me to understand the difference between political appointees and others, since all of them are paid by tax dollars,” Rep. Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge) said. “Which departments does your bill include?” “Let me look that up, Harris said, and gestured for House staff members to bring him the list. “And while we’re waiting, tell me: Do you think Dr. Gee is doing a good job?” Marcelle pointedly asked. “Uhhh, well…uhhh…I don’t know what her performance benchmarks are,” Harris prevaricated. “Okay, what if I offered an amendment to include all department heads in your bill?” Marcelle asked. “I don’t want that included,” Harris said, sounding rather petulant. Rep. Dustin Miller (D-Opelousas) wanted to know about another department head. “When DOTD Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson is in north Louisiana, or in Washington, D.C., how do we know when – or even that – he is working?” “We have to trust an executive on his level to be doing his job,” Harris replied. “What about trust when it comes to Dr. Gee, then?” Miller aked. Harris chuckled awkwardly, then said, ”Some think this is targeting her. We just want to make sure that every appointed department head, overseeing these huge budgets, is doing their job.” “Virtually everything in this bill is already in law, but it’s clear this is an attack on Dr. Gee,” said Rep. Sam Jones (D-Franklin), as he urged a no vote on the bill. “She is a doctor, a wife, a mother, and she has overseen the most successful Medicaid expansion in the country. But Dr. Gee is a woman, and there’s something in this bill that smacks of misogyny. Yet I don’t know if there’s a guy in here – to borrow a locker room phrase – that could carry her jock strap.” Rep. Nancy Landry (R-Lafayette), clearly irritated, made a motion to call the question. But the motion failed. Rep. Rob Shadoin (R-Ruston) then offered an amendment. “Members of the People’s House, this debate got me thinking: why should we limit this to appointed department heads? We have 21 state departments. All of them should be included.” That amendment was adopted, and then Harris closed on the bill. “This is a good government bill,” he insisted. People expect those running our multi-million, multi-billion dollar departments to work full time at that job.” On a vote of 45-40, the bill failed to pass. Harris did put it on the list for reconsideration, so if he can twist enough arms on a day when the full complement of House members (105) is in attendance, it could be voted on again. (For the past couple of weeks, there have daily been between ten and twenty-five absences of House members from floor sessions.) Wednesday morning, the House Criminal Justice Committee took up SB 181, a 15-week ban on all abortions, proposed by Sen. John Milkovich (D-Shreveport). “I want to outlaw all abortions,” Milkovich told the committee. “But until then, this will save the lives of hundreds of babies that are now being killed in the abortion mills of Louisiana.” “What about saving the life of the mother?” Rep. Denise Marcelle asked. “This bill does not recognize any exceptions after 15 weeks,” Milkovich replied. “When a doctor has to choose between saving the baby or the mother, are you saying we should save the baby and let the mother die?” she asked. “Basically,” Milkovich answered. “You know the abortion industry has injected this argument into this whole debate, and the reality is, we don’t know if something like that would happen. We don’t know that the mother would die. We do know that abortion kills babies, however.” Ben Clapper with Louisiana Right to Life tried to soften the harsh absolutism of Milkovich’s statement, by saying, “Current law says in case of a medical emergency that clearly means the death or risk of death of the woman, the physician can act – but must make an effort to save the life of the baby.” Clapper was not referring to current law, however. He was speaking of Louisiana’s “trigger” law, passed in 2006 in case the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturns Roe v. Wade. It prohibits all abortions, except to save the mother’s life. That “prospective” law also establishes criminal penalties for anyone who performs or aids an abortion – 10 years at hard labor and a $100,000 fine. Also testifying for the bill was the operator of a crisis pregnancy center. These facilities provide the state-required pre-abortion ultrasounds – for a fee – and under the guise of “pregnancy counseling”, staffers bombard clients with guilt-inducing rhetoric. Wayne Gravois, medical director of the Pregnancy Problem Center in Baton Rouge, gave committee members a sample of what they tell women during those ultrasounds. “Look, it’s a baby, fully-formed. It yawns, it smiles, it grimaces, it moves away from the ultrasound probe,” he said. “The baby feels – no question. What’s the right thing to do?” There was testimony in opposition, as well. Ellie Schilling, the attorney who has been fighting Louisiana’s ever more restrictive abortion laws in court, reminded the panel that every ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a pre-viability prohibition against abortion is unconstitutional, and that 15 weeks is well below the earliest chance of survival outside the womb. Alana Carstens, a third-year medical student, told the committee a fetus cannot feel pain before about 24 weeks gestation. “The cortex isn’t developed until then,” she said. “Fifteen weeks it too early to diagnose fetal abnormalities, which aren’t seen on ultrasounds before the 18th week. This bill would force medical providers to withhold vital care until the woman’s life IS threatened.” Amy Irvin with the New Orleans Abortion Fund agreed, saying, “This bill is especially cruel, as it withholds vital healthcare for women after the 15th week of pregnancy. It ignores federal law, while stripping women of their rights to bodily autonomy. Whether you like it or not, women are citizens, and they have rights, but still you continue to relentlessly shame them and judge them through laws like this one, putting political ideology over sensible public health policies. Louisiana deserves better from you lawmakers. And remember – women vote.” Rep. Barbara Carpenter (D-Baton Rouge) had a blunt question for Sen. Milkovich: “Do you believe that women have the right to make decisions about their own bodies?” “The answer is no,” Milkovich said, “Not when it comes to babies. ‘Thou shalt not kill’.” “People take a position on what they believe in, and you obviously believe in this, Sen. Milkovich,” remarked Rep. Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans). “Yet I can’t help observing that everybody who spoke in favor of this bill was a man. And everyone who spoke against it was a woman. Those who are advocating for this bill will never have to suffer its effects, for they can never be pregnant.” Yet on a committee vote of 9-8, the bill was sent to the full House – where, as we know, ‘boys will be boys” – especially the good ol’ boys. What Sam Jones said.