The Abortion Wars: For abortion foes, a national strategy built at the state level
The numbers have changed little over the decades: A majority of Americans support abortion.
But across the country, the antiabortion movement has recorded major success in the last four years, part of a well-funded national strategy to legislate abortion out of existence state by state. Legislatures, many stocked with new Republican majorities, have passed laws that, if upheld, would drastically reduce access to abortion for millions of women.
Since 2011, 230 abortion restrictions have become law, more than in the entire previous decade, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights.
Eight states have enacted laws requiring women to get ultrasounds before receiving abortions. Five prohibit insurance companies from covering abortion for government employees. Nine have passed laws restricting state money from going to any group that provides abortion services.
This month, nearly two-thirds of the abortion clinics in Texas were forced to close their doors when the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state could enforce a recent law requiring them to be built to the same stringent standards as hospitals.
Charmaine Yoest, president of the antiabortion group Americans United for Life, calls it a “tidal wave of legislation,” spurred by the number of antiabortion legislators elected at the state level in 2010.
“States are called laboratories of democracy,” Yoest said. “There wasn’t much opportunity on the federal level, so pro-life Americans said, ‘We are going to make a statement with the government that’s nearest and closest to us.’”
In Louisiana, that effort is on full display.
A conservative juggernaut has sprung to life here along the Gulf of Mexico, where Bayou State politics work hand-in-hand with Christian churches, where some conservative pastors condemn abortion as a sin and tell parishioners that voting for a Democrat is too.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has been so consistent in his opposition to abortion that the state is celebrated as the most “pro-life” in the country by Americans United for Life. The antiabortion lobby’s annual scorecards are closely watched by legislators here.
“Abortion until recently was not a front-burner issue in Louisiana,” said JP Morrell, a Democratic state senator. “Religious groups have made it a front-burner issue. The grass-roots movement here is as organized and effective as anything you’ve ever seen.”
The law that is having the most effect on access to abortion in Louisiana requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The legislation was sponsored by a Democratic state legislator, evidence of the complicated politics of abortion here. Ten other states have passed similar measures, although some have been blocked by courts.
Abortion foes say the admitting privileges law would protect women’s health. Abortion providers say it would shut down clinics and undermine Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.
Louisiana’s five abortion clinics have sued to overturn the law. From Sept. 1 forward, any physician without privileges would have had to stop performing abortions, resulting in the closure of some, if not all, of the clinics.
Although a federal judge granted a temporary reprieve from the law, as of last week it was unclear whether the doctors who do not yet have privileges will be able to continue practicing until the case is resolved.
“Based on my experience, many hospitals in Louisiana are reluctant to provide admitting privileges to physicians who perform abortions because of personal objections to abortion held by members of their medical staff,” Sylvia Cochran, administrator of clinics in New Orleans and Baton Rouge that provide abortions, said in a court declaration. Many hospitals, she added, also worry about protesters.
Six physicians perform abortions in Louisiana’s clinics. Hospitals so far have not granted four of them admitting privileges. Of the two physicians who have such privileges, Cochran fears that one could lose them. The other said in court documents that, if he became the sole legal abortion provider in the state, he would stop performing the procedure because he would fear for his safety.
Louisiana has more than 30 organizations that identify themselves as “crisis pregnancy centers.” These facilities provide referrals for free medical care, counsel women against having abortions and are often affiliated with national antiabortion groups. Texas has more than 100. Such centers in Louisiana are often right next to abortion providers. They are listed on the state Department of Health & Hospitals website as an alternative for pregnant women.
One bright summer day, Bill Shanks stood outside an abortion clinic that Cochran oversees — the Women’s Healthcare Center in New Orleans. He wore a cheery smile as fellow protesters waved giant posters of dismembered fetuses.
“This is like a victory celebration,” said Shanks, who was picketing as a member of the fundamentalist Christian group Operation Save America. “Last time we came here, there were 10 free-standing abortion clinics. One by one, they’ve crumbled.”
Support for abortion rights remains strong across most of the country, according to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Last year, as the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade approached, 63% said they would not like to see the court overturn the decision. Only 29% said they wanted it overturned. Over the years, the numbers have remained fairly steady.
What has changed, according to the poll, is a divide — both geographic and political — that abortion foes have mined with increasing success.
In New England, 75% of the people Pew polled said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up 5% from two decades ago. But in the eight-state South Central region, which includes Louisiana and Texas, the survey showed that only 40% said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, down 5% over the same period.
For legislators in the South in particular, the issue of abortion carries serious political consequences.
At a July 24 town hall meeting in Opelousas, La., organized by opponents of abortion, the audience sat quietly picking through free jambalaya. Benjamin Clapper, executive director of the Louisiana Right to Life Federation, delivered an update on antiabortion bills passed by the state’s legislators in the recent session.
Three local elected officials, two Democrats and a Republican, stood up to accept cheers for having supported the measures. Dozens watched a presentation that included pouring orange foam pellets into a glass jar to show how many abortions are performed in Louisiana each year — more than 12,000 in 2011, the most recent statistics available.
But most of the meeting dealt with the November election. Clapper focused his disdain on U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu. The Louisiana Democrat is facing a tough battle, and Clapper, 29, hit his key points:
Landrieu has not voted for any measure that would restrict access to abortion since she was last reelected in 2008, he said. Her four opponents either supported every abortion bill over the same period, or, if they did not serve in public office, expressed a commitment to support antiabortion legislation.
He then passed out a card scoring the candidates on their abortion stances. “If you know legislators who didn’t vote pro-life, I encourage you to contact them and encourage them to stand stronger for life,” Clapper told the crowd.
Landrieu has said she believes life begins at conception but that government does not belong in church, the bedroom or the doctor’s office. A recent poll indicated she probably is headed for a December runoff.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle are wary of the annual scorecards put out by the antiabortion lobby, especially one from the Louisiana Family Forum, a group run by antiabortion activist Gene Mills and founded by Tony Perkins, now head of the Family Research Council.
On Mills’ scorecards, both Democrats and Republicans scored high marks because of their antiabortion stance, something that would be unlikely in most other states. Bills that undermine abortion access in Louisiana get bipartisan support, he said, “because people are afraid of that legislative scorecard.”
Mills distributes the scorecards to a network of churches and encourages pastors to speak about what elected officials are doing. Churches are not supposed to engage in partisan political activity if they want to retain their tax-exempt status, but Mills and a national litigation group called the Alliance Defending Freedom are challenging that.
“We want to let [pastors] know that it is not the government’s right to limit your free speech even when you stand on the pulpit,” said Mills, who is a pastor himself.
Butch Gautreaux, a Democrat who served in the Louisiana state Senate from 2000 until 2012, sees a problem in such close ties.
“Preachers are preaching whatever song is coming from the Family Forum,” Gautreaux said. “I had a Catholic priest say that to vote for a Democrat is a sin — he said that in church. Distortion plays a huge part in what they do. It’s not right, it’s sinful, it’s shameful.
“A lot of times, for a moderate legislator like I was, it was easier just not to have to fight on that issue. I might vote not my conscience but my peace,” he said, explaining that he might vote in favor of abortion restrictions if it meant he didn’t have to go home and explain his actions over and over again.
The Louisiana measure requiring hospital admissions privileges for abortion doctors was sponsored by Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Democrat. Jackson defends the Affordable Care Act and other Obama administration policies, but says she’s never wavered on her antiabortion stance.
The bill was crafted by the Bioethics Defense Fund, a public interest law firm that opposes abortion, physician-assisted suicide and human embryonic research. It was modeled on legislation passed in Texas and written by Americans United for Life.
“I look forward,” Jackson said in an interview, “to the day abortion is not legal in this country.”
Growing up in a religious family, the first-term legislator says she always believed abortion was wrong. Improving technology, such as ultrasounds, confirmed this for her.
“You begin to grasp that this is a real life from its conception,” she said.
The growing influence of the antiabortion groups has changed the minds of some women including Warniesha Berry, 29. She was standing outside one of two crisis pregnancy centers that bookend Causeway Medical Clinic in Metairie, La., as she waited for her pregnant sister.
Berry has six children of her own. She went to an abortion clinic intending to terminate her fourth pregnancy, but she was approached by protesters and took some of their literature into the clinic. She left and ultimately gave birth.
Now, she said, “if you close them down and there is no possible way to get an abortion, you’re going to think twice about having unprotected sex.”
But even here in Louisiana, there are cracks in the antiabortion sentiment.
Some people, like Becka Curry, have been disturbed by the graphic protests. Curry, 39, lives in the leafy Freret district of New Orleans, next door to a doctor who performs abortions.
Curry, who has children aged 6 and 3, said activists knocked on the doctor’s door to harass her on her doorstep. A disgusted Curry eventually asked the protesters to leave. The incident, she said, has motivated her to become more involved in the abortion rights movement.
“It helped us see they’re under attack,” Curry said.
Then there is Simone Byrd, a sophomore at Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport who is part of a large, close, extended family of conservative, antiabortion Catholics. Everyone, that is, except the 19-year-old and her mother.
In September, Byrd demonstrated outside Hope Medical Group for Women, Shreveport’s only abortion provider, located across the street from her school. Her pink sign said: “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries.”
If Louisiana loses its abortion providers, she said, “I would be terrified. I’m lucky enough to have the resources to be on birth control, but you still never know.
“If there were no longer an option,” Byrd said, “it would be heartbreaking.”
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.