When the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24 overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, the consequences seemed clear: Each of the 50 states would decide whether to permit abortion within its borders.
In the conservative-leaning, southern state of Louisiana, it was expected that a "trigger law" would immediately be activated, prohibiting any abortion not deemed to be necessary to protect the mother's life. Instead, access to abortion in Louisiana has swung back and forth at a dizzying rate, dismaying defenders and opponents of the procedure, not to mention women with unwanted pregnancies.
“It’s been confusing and horrible for the women who seek abortions at our clinic,” said Kathaleen Pittman, the clinic administrator at Hope Medical Group for Women, and one of three abortion clinics in Louisiana. Hope Medical Group for Women, in the city of Shreveport, is the lead plaintiff in an ongoing court battle over whether the state’s anti-abortion trigger law can take effect. Pittman told VOA that ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, the clinic’s waitlist grew dramatically. Shortly after the high court’s decision, nearly all abortions were halted in Louisiana.
Three days later, abortion rights advocates won a victory as a state court blocked the trigger law, allowing abortions to resume. Since then, abortions have been made illegal again and – as of Tuesday – once again legal.
“Deciding to get an abortion is one of the most difficult decisions many women will have to make,” Pittman said. “We’ve had women waiting for weeks or more for this procedure they feel they need. Then, in some cases the day before their appointment, we’ve had to make a heartbreaking call to tell them it’s no longer permitted by state law and that we have to cancel the abortion.”
The legal whiplash is unlikely to end anytime soon as both sides prepare for a prolonged battle in the courts. “I think it’s something that’s going to drag on for a while, unfortunately,” said Sarah Zagorski, communications director at Louisiana Right to Life, an anti-abortion advocacy organization. “Every day the Louisiana law is stopped from going into effect is another day that innocent babies are murdered in this state,” she continued. “That’s not acceptable to us.”
Confusion for women
In more than a dozen states, similar legal fights are under way over abortion bans. In addition to Louisiana, laws prohibiting abortions have been temporarily blocked in Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, and Utah. While these temporary restraining orders (TROs) are welcomed by abortion rights defenders because they allow clinics to proceed with the procedure for the time being, they have created confusion and, in some cases, a false sense of hope – not just at abortion clinics but for millions of American women unsure where abortion laws stand in their state.
“We had 40 women who were scheduled for an abortion on Saturday while the last TRO was in effect,” Pittman said. “These are 40 women who made this very difficult decision to move forward with an abortion, who waited on our waitlist, who had an ultrasound and a consultation with us already because that’s what Louisiana law requires, and who — in some cases — were already in transit across the state or from some other state where they couldn’t receive an abortion.”
Last Friday, just one day before those abortions were set to occur, a New Orleans judge ruled she could not uphold the TRO because she no longer had jurisdiction over the case because it had been moved to Baton Rouge. The result was that abortions were, at the time, once again illegal.
“We had to call each of those 40 women and tell them to turn their cars around because we couldn’t do the procedure,” Pittman said.
Opponents of Louisiana’s anti-abortion trigger law argue the statute is ambiguous and doesn’t adequately spell out the rare instances in which it would allow the procedure. “The triggers are quite clear: the law goes into effect when Roe has been overruled. That condition is now met, so this is neither vague nor confusing,” said Liz Murrill, who, as solicitor general of Louisiana, is involved in fighting the TRO.
Hope Medical Group for Women and other plaintiffs say the law lacks clarity in complicated situations involving potential health risks to pregnant women, and they fear women who need an abortion as a life-or-death matter may be denied one. “The situations they’re arguing about don’t even involve them,” she said of the lead plaintiff, an abortion clinic. “Medically necessary treatments are handled at hospitals by doctors, not at abortion clinics.”
“They like to talk about ectopic pregnancies [where a fetus grows outside the main cavity of the uterus], for example, but the law never did and does not now ban treatment of ectopic pregnancies, cancer, or any other treatment that is necessary to preserve the health and safety of a pregnant woman," Murrill added. “The plaintiffs are serial litigators, and their intent is to create confusion, which ultimately hurts women.”
Pittman, from Hope Medical Group for Women, says that is not true. “We constantly get calls from doctors and the volume of calls has gone up since the Supreme Court ruling,” she said. “Sometimes they want to know if we think a certain procedure is legal, and sometimes they want to know if we’ll do the procedure for their patient since their hospital is either morally opposed or legally unable to do it themselves. We’re very much a part of this.”
The battle continues
Earlier this month, New Orleans resident Emily Diament and her family experienced a tragedy that showed her how dangerous the Louisiana law could be for women in the state. She was pregnant with her second child, but during her routine, 20-week scan, she learned the fetus no longer had a heartbeat. The news was devastating.
Diament and her husband had two choices: She could have a traditional, vaginal birth to remove the dead fetus, or she could undergo dilation and evacuation (D&E), a common abortion procedure.
“The D&E is the faster and safer option,” Diament said, “but beyond that, as a mother who just lost her 20-week-old child, I cannot fathom having to be induced, go through contraction after contraction, and then push with all that I have to deliver my child that I know is already passed.”
Diament understands her situation is not seen as an abortion and would not be considered illegal under the Louisiana law. But she’s worried, she said, about what other mothers will have to go through.
“There are many instances where a pregnant mother experiences serious complications with her baby while it still has a heartbeat,” she told VOA. “If the baby develops a fatal disease, for example, and won’t be able to survive outside the womb, this law would make it illegal for that mother to have a D&E because the baby has a heartbeat and the mother’s life isn’t at risk. D&Es are already illegal in places like Texas and Alabama.
“The only option those women would have is to be induced into labor,” Diament continued. “While some may choose that option, many – like me – would feel tortured having to spend hours in pain pushing out a baby that would be left to die in their arms.”
For the emotional and physical health of women, as well as for the protection of doctors who might be hesitant to perform such procedures because they’re unsure of the legal consequences, Diament said the law must be further clarified.
In the courtroom
On Tuesday, opponents of the law received encouraging news. A judge in Baton Rouge reinstated the TRO. This made abortions in Louisiana legal once again, at least temporarily.
Joanna Wright, lead attorney for Hope Medical Group for Women, told VOA it’s telling that in the past two weeks, two separate Louisiana judges have ruled similarly.
“They’ve both rightly judged that irreparable harm will occur if the trigger bans are enforced,” she said. Next, Wright explained, they will argue for a preliminary injunction on July 18. If granted, the injunction would extend the period of time that abortions remain legal in the state. “We take solace,” she said, “in the fact that crucial health care for women has been restored” in the state of Louisiana.
Anti-abortion advocates such as Sarah Zagorski of Louisiana Right to Life, however, say those critical of the state's law are grasping at straws and finding extreme and uncommon examples to delay implementing the statute so they can keep performing abortions.
“We will continue to fight to protect innocent children, as well as to protect mothers who are being pressured into making decisions so many of them come to regret,” she said. “We are hopeful this important anti-abortion law will stand in time – hopefully it doesn’t take too much time – but in time.”