John Bel Edwards, our Democratic governor, calls himself pro-life. On the national scene, that is an unusual stance. But in Louisiana, Gov. Edwards believes his views are in the mainstream. In the three and a half years since Edwards’ inauguration, his press releases have touted balanced budgets, improved funding for higher education, and greater access to services for residents with disabilities. He’s worked hard on issues supporting LGBTQ rights, even while being obstructed by Attorney General Jeff Landry on this issue and others, such as Medicaid expansion.
Because of Gov. Edwards’ leadership, by any objective standard, Louisiana is in substantially better shape today than we were on the day Bobby Jindal cleaned out his office and movers hauled off his things from the Governor’s Mansion.
But in those same three and a half years, however, state legislators have passed abortion restrictions every opportunity they’ve had: Stripping facilities that perform abortions from all Medicaid funding, even for preventative health services; requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within thirty miles, and extending the waiting period from the first examination to performing an abortion to 72 hours. And every single year, the state Senate passes a resolution designating a specific week as “Pro-life Week” in Louisiana.
Last year was a banner year. Twelve different bills affecting abortion rights were introduced in the legislature; nine of those bills were passed and signed into law by the governor. Among these was a ban on abortions after fifteen weeks gestation.
All told, since John Bel Edwards took office, legislators have introduced at least 40 different bills aimed at restricting abortion. Even before the passage of SB 184 this week, Louisiana was already one of the five most restrictive states for abortion in the country.
With the governor’s signature, SB 184 became Act 31.
Popularly known as the “heartbeat bill,” Act 31 would prohibit abortions after cardiovascular electrical activity is observable. This is usually at about six weeks gestation, before many women even know they are pregnant. Notably, according to medical professionals, the word “heartbeat” is biologically inaccurate.
“The use of the word ‘heartbeat’ is intentionally misleading and manipulative,” Dr. Jennifer Kerns explained to Newsweek. “It’s used to distract people from the actual intention [of legislators], which is essentially to ban abortion outright.” Kerns is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California San Francisco.
The new law only allows exceptions when the life or health of the mother are in jeopardy, or when the embryo or fetus is not viable. An amendment to allow exceptions for rape or incest failed.
Ultimately, it passed the state House 77-23 and sailed through the state Senate as well, garnering support from 31 members; only five voted against it. As originally written, the bill would have become enforceable as law when signed by the governor, but, as amended, it may only be enforced if a similar Mississippi law currently before the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is upheld.
The governor has always been clear about his anti-abortion beliefs. He was opposed to abortion rights as a legislator. His campaign in 2015 featured an ad with Donna Edwards telling the story of their oldest child, Samantha, who was diagnosed with spina bifida before she was born, and how they were advised to have an abortion.
Pro-choice advocates and other progressives have expressed their anger at Gov. Edwards’s determination to sign this bill. Until last Wednesday, when he released a statement reiterating his “Pro-life for the whole life” stance, his main response has been that he hasn’t changed his position on this at all. Gov. Edwards is speaking the truth: the records shows he has never seen a piece of anti-choice legislation he wouldn’t sign.
This legislation is not happening in a vacuum. Legislation restricting abortion rights has been passed and signed into law in nine other states. As a result of President Trump’s appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Bret Kavanaugh, conservatives now believe they have a real shot at overturning Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court. If they are correct, anything that’s happening in the legislature right now is just window dressing, thanks to a 2006 bill authored by former Sen. Ben Nevers (D – Bogalusa) and signed by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. That law, now known as Act 467, would ban abortions in all cases, except when giving birth would threaten the life of the mother.
Forgive me if I see all these restrictions as political theatre. Current Louisiana law, in the event Roe v. Wade is overturned, is more onerous than any of the restrictions that have been passed in the last three years. Putting my pundit hat on, I don’t see “the heartbeat bill” passing Supreme Court muster without effectively overturning a law that has stood for more than 46 years.
If Roe is overturned, “the heartbeat bill” won’t be the law in Louisiana; a total ban on all abortions will.
John Bel Edwards is far from the most culpable party in this ugly drama. Anti-choice Democrats throughout the state are on the record supporting this bill – including some that I greatly respect. They are voting their own values and the values of their constituents. That they are willfully oblivious to the fully foreseeable result that women will die and families will suffer is tragic, but they seem to be willing to make that trade.
How is an ardent pro-choice Democrat to respond to this mess? I have found myself, through the entirety of Governor Edwards’ tenure, quoting the words of the Republican Prophet, Ronald Reagan: “the person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20 percent traitor.” John Bel Edwards is wrong on this issue. He’s angered progressives, women, and others in his base by both his stance on this terrible bill and his press release explaining it. But on 80% of the issues, I agree with him. A pro-choice Democrat doesn’t stand a chance in hell of winning in Louisiana. If we want a pro-choice governor, we need a pro-choice electorate. If we actually have a pro-choice electorate, we need to do a better job showing up. And until that time, I’m going to continue to support the 80% governor we have.