Why one 'pro life' Louisiana senator opposed a restrictive abortion bill

Louisiana state Sen. Dan Claitor (R) usually votes for tougher abortion restrictions, but this time around, he said he could not.

Travis Spradling/The Baton Rouge Advocate/AP
Louisiana Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne (l.), the chief budget architect for Gov. John Bel Edwards, talks with state Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R)as they leave the Senate Chamber Wednesday, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

When the Louisiana Senate passed a bill Thursday to outlaw abortions in cases where the fetus is diagnosed with genetic abnormalities, there was a surprising dissenter.

Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor usually votes for tougher abortion restrictions, but this time around, he says he could not do so in good conscience. He believes the bill to be in violation of the Constitutional right to abortion as outlined in the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade.

"Why would you put me in a box to make a choice between supporting my oath to uphold the Constitution ... and being pro-life?" Senator Claitor, an attorney, asked his fellow legislators. "The bill as written, in my view, is patently unconstitutional."

For many of his fellow lawmakers however, the possibility that the legislation could later be challenged in courts was not enough to deter them from passing a bill they felt to be right.

"Every bill we pass can be challenged. But this bill right here protects the life of unborn children," Democratic Sen. Regina Barrow countered.

The move is the latest in a myriad of recent legislative efforts by Republican lawmakers in red states to restrict abortion. Similar to an Oklahoma bill recently vetoed by that state’s governor, which proposed an outright ban on abortions and threatened doctors with prison time, the new Louisiana proposal places the legal burden on the doctor rather than the woman. As The Christian Science Monitor's Jessica Mendoza reported last month:

[The passage of the Oklahoma bill through the legislature] followed a series of antiabortion laws that have taken shape in red states across the nation, from Florida to Utah to Texas. Such laws adopt medical language to describe their objectives, even as major mainstream medical organizations – including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association – say restricting women’s access to safe and legal abortion often forces them to turn to riskier methods to terminate their pregnancies.

By casting its bill in medical terms – punishing doctors for performing a procedure deemed legal by the United States Supreme Court – Oklahoma legislators were attempting to ramp up a perceived war on abortion doctors, medical experts say.

“The messaging around a bill like this just deepens the stigma against abortion providers,” says Daniel Grossman, an assistant clinical professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.

“It has a broader impact on entrenching stigma around abortion and sends a statement that abortion is not health care and that doctors who perform abortions aren’t the same kind of doctors that you know and love and go see for your primary care,” he says. 

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) ultimately vetoed that bill, saying “would not withstand a criminal constitutional legal challenge.”

Louisiana's Claitor and Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D) raised similar concerns about the bill fore the Louisiana Senate this week.

"There have been attempts at every angle to cut away at the right," said Senator Peterson, one of a small number of senators who support abortion rights. "You all want to ignore federal law."

Peterson also said Louisiana – a state struggling with budget problems – could not afford a court challenge to such new legislation.

"We don't have extra money, FYI, to spend on legal fees," Peterson said.

The bill ultimately passed the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 29 to 6. Members of the Louisiana House will have the opportunity to consider Senate changes, including an amendment that softens the restriction in cases where the mother's life is in danger.

If signed into law, doctors who break the law could face a maximum of two years in prison, malpractice claims, and a wrongful death lawsuit.

North Dakota and Indiana already have similar laws.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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