After nearly four hours of emotional and frequently bitter debate, members of the Louisiana state Senate on Saturday failed by just three votes to override the governor's veto of an anti-abortion bill that has been called the toughest in the nation.
The vote--23 in favor of the override and 16 against--was three short of the two-thirds majority needed, but was not final. A second vote is expected to take place today because Senate rules allow another attempt when a majority votes in favor of an override.
For the override to carry, the Senate must act before the Legislature adjourns at midnight Monday night.
Inside the packed Senate chamber, repeated shouts of "Override! Override!" could be heard from anti-abortion protesters outside the marble walls. State troopers had admitted 200 spectators to the Senate gallery and another 500 to the ornate rotunda between the House and Senate, but an estimated 4,000 demonstrators--both proponents and foes of the bill--thronged the Capitol steps in 90-degree heat.
Loudspeakers carried the proceedings to the crowd outside.
On the Capitol steps, hundreds of anti-abortion activists sang hymns, held hands, knelt to pray and sometimes spoke in tongues. Fundamentalist preachers excoriated supporters of legal abortion as "pro-murder demons."
Abortion rights advocates, many dressed in shades of purple to identify themselves, chanted "Freedom! Freedom!" Some taunted their foes by yelling: "How many babies did you adopt this week?"
On Friday, Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer had vetoed the anti-abortion measure because it lacked exceptions for rape and incest.
In his veto message, Roemer said women "cannot and should not be forced to bear the consequences of these traumatic, illegal acts. These exceptions are very important to me and, I believe, important to the women of Louisiana whose lives and rights must be protected."
But just hours after the governor's message members of the Louisiana House of Representatives mustered three votes over the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override, 73 to 31, setting the stage for the vote in the Senate.
The bill, which passed two weeks ago, would have been the nation's strictest state anti-abortion law. Those who perform abortions could have faced 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
The legislation was drafted by state and national anti-abortion organizations with the intention of providing the Supreme Court with a challenge to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling that legalized most abortions. The Louisiana bill was considered the last chance this year to create such a test case.
Inside the Senate chamber some lawmakers argued that the legislation was too restrictive.
"Why should we impose upon the women of the United States the unreasonable burdens that this bill will impose?" demanded Sydney Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Shreveport.
In voting to override, Rep. Louis (Woody) Jenkins, a Democrat from Baton Rouge, a major architect of the abortion ban, said that out of 15,000 abortions in 1987 only one was the result of a rape. "He's for killing 15,000 unborn children a year in Louisiana just to make sure that one child conceived in rape is also killed," said Jenkins, who added that Roemer was acting in "callous disregard" for the rights of the unborn.
But Rep. Alphonse Jackson said Jenkins' bill was "against the family and against the individual's rights and against privacy. This is a decision that ought to be between a woman and her god, between a family and their god."
Although most political observers here predicted that the Senate would again fall short of the 26 votes needed to override Roemer's veto, Sen. Mike Cross, a Democrat and the Senate sponsor of the bill, said he would continue to push for an override right up to the Monday midnight deadline.
During Saturday's debate Cross said: "All I'm asking you to do is to send a message out again that here in Louisiana we no longer allow people to murder unborn children."
Cross added: "When you talk about choice, we're left with two choices, either you're for abortions or your against abortions."
Despite Cross' vow to push for another override vote today or Monday, legislators and political analysts said that without the exceptions Roemer has asked for the bill is doomed.
"Everyone in this Senate knows that if those exceptions had been in this bill there wouldn't be any questions as to the number who would have voted on it," said Sen. Willie Crain, a Democrat from Monroe.
But one lawmaker, Sen. Fritz Windhorst, a Republican from New Orleans, said that even if the Senate fails to override the veto, abortion rights proponents will write and propose a new bill for next winter's legislative session. "You understand that we are not solving anything by sustaining the veto," said Windhorst. "We're delaying things. That's all we're doing."