By Gabrielle Perry / Prism
With the 2024 election cycle drawing closer, reproductive health and abortion access have been thrust into the forefront of the national conversation. States like Texas and Florida have emerged as battleground states for reproductive health care and other legislation, placing women and other marginalized genders in the political crosshairs. Yet in the cacophony of the most recent national legislative and election cycles, Louisiana, a majority women and red state, has been largely ignored.
Unlike its ideological and geographical neighbors, Louisiana residents are experiencing a rare bipartisan effort to disenfranchise reproductive rights and health access throughout the state. Political infighting, including a public assault on Democratic state Sen. Regina Barrow, a Black representative, at the hands of her white Republican male colleague, has taken center stage while the fates of millions of people in need of reproductive health care in Louisiana remain in queue. With the announcement Louisiana will soon begin to issue commemorative certificatesfor those who have experienced a miscarriage—a practice some advocates say is meant to create more anti-abortion societal tensions—advocates say the political discourse surrounding reproductive health care in Louisiana has opened the eyes of many to the hostility of the state toward women and other marginalized genders.
Louisiana has faced an onslaught of anti-abortion laws both triggered and newly installed since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision. Democratic Louisiana House Rep. Mandie Landry spoke in depth about the most recent legislative session’s impact and the need for accountability from both of Louisiana’s political parties in addressing the plight of women and people in need of reproductive health care.
“Overall, we made no improvements,” she said. “All of the abortion bills failed. [We tried] to confirm and codify in Louisiana that we would not criminalize women who have abortions. I tried to codify it, and it failed in committee. We saw the writing on the wall with the rest. We could not lower criminal penalties for doctors. None of those things.”
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Louisiana currently has the worst maternal mortality rate in the U.S. A 2019 reportfrom the Louisiana Department of Health shows that four Black mothers die for every white mother. U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, was nationally vilified last year after publicly suggesting Black women, who make up about 17% of the state’s population and Cassidy’s constituency, should not be counted in the state’s maternal mortality rate.
Katie Hunter-Lowrey, the lead organizer and policy advocate for Louisiana Survivors for Reform, a project of The Promise of Justice Initiative, spoke of the fear surrounding the criminalization of reproductive health care.
“It is not as though when Dobbs happened, Louisiana had a very low rate of maternal mortality or a low rate of domestic violence and homicide,” Hunter-Lowrey said. “It is very infuriating to watch policymakers and anti-abortion advocates give lip service to caring about crime victims and yet pass laws to further incarcerate people and beef up police when the data shows being pregnant is a very dangerous time for crime victims. They care about their political agenda, not victims of crime.”
Louisiana rounds out the top states in the U.S. for femicide and intimate partner violence. Following national trends, the leading cause of death for pregnant women in Louisiana is homicide. Activists describe the feelings of frustration at the issue of reproductive care access being used as a means of political expediency.
“People who need abortion care are not seen as humans in need of medical care and emotional support in Louisiana,” Hunter-Lowrey said. “That is a huge barrier [to accessing care] because our bodies are not political props. That is such an ingrained mindset at this point. I just heard a doctor talk about the impact of pregnancy on a 9-year-old’s body. I, definitely, in my organizing am connecting with people who are in the midst of or in the aftermath of a difficult experience.”
People like Nancy Davis, who made headlines worldwide after being told by Louisiana hospitals she would be forced to give birth despite her fetus suffering from acrania, a fatal congenital abnormality where a fetus does not form a skull in the womb. She later traveled to New York to obtain an abortion. The current Louisiana GOP gubernatorial frontrunner Attorney General Jeff Landry—endorsed by former President Donald Trump—has been quoted emphatically telling any childbearing dissenters of the new laws banning abortion in Louisiana to “pack your bags and move to California.”
Though GOP lawmakers are the most vocal advocates of anti-abortion laws, it was Democratic Louisiana Sen. Katrina Jackson who authored Senate Bill 342, which banned abortion in all instances, including rape or incest, and increased penalties to 10 years of prison time and a fine of $10,000-100,000. Citing his Catholic faith, outgoing Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the bill into law in the summer of 2022. The state has since continued to see a documented increase in adverse maternal child health care data.
In contrast to South Carolina, whose Democratic and Republican woman senators publicly united to defend reproductive rights for their constituents in the state constitution, Louisiana is the only state where all Republican and Democraticwoman senators voted to remove reproductive rights from residents in their state.
“[The Senators] say ‘we are all aligned for life.’ But the Senate committees did not have to sit through any of the abortion bills,” said Democratic state Rep. Landry.
This sentiment was echoed by community activists, who were dismayed at state legislators refusing to be present during testimony from physicians, those who had received abortion care, and their own colleagues, including state Rep. Delisha Boyd, who testified in the Louisiana House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee to being a product of rape after her 15-year-old mother was assaulted by a man in his late 20s.
“Rep. Boyd is a colleague of the people who voted for the bill,” said Hunter-Lowrey, who was present during testimony. “It wasn’t even a situation where the representatives could say they had never met someone who went through this. A person they sat with in House chambers told her story, and even that didn’t move them. And that is because they are making political calculations. They didn’t even bother to sit at the table for many of the testimonies.”
As a makeshift solution to the state’s vague verbiage surrounding the abortion ban—and as multiple laws are triggered into effect that make the legal interpretation unclear for many—the state will soon issue commemorative certificates for those who have experienced a miscarriage. Similar to a birth certificate, the certificate will be legally required to list the name and gender of the fetus. If this is not feasible or no name exists, state records will be required to list the first name as “Baby,” “Baby Boy,” or “Baby Girl.” The last name will be the last name of the person who lost the pregnancy. Some activists see this as a divisive tactic.
“The practice of issuing these [certificates] is another disingenuous way of dividing people … We don’t have to say, ‘We see the end of your pregnancy as legitimate, but for other people you’re a monster, and you don’t value human life,’” Hunter-Lowrey said. “It’s just another way the state is creating a false binary by pitting groups against each other and [saying] that the trauma and loss you’ve experienced is legitimate, but for this other group it’s not legitimate.”
Supporters of this new measure, which was signed into law by Gov. Edwards in June, have been those who run the various anti-abortion centers, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, that have popped up around the state. Many, like Landry, feel the goal of these centers is to extract funding from the state.
“Crisis pregnancy centers take TANF funds away from needy children [in Louisiana], and now they are rebranding as maternal health care centers here,” Landry said.
So what can be done when people’s worth and bodily autonomy are publicly debated? According to Landry, arming the public with information is crucial.
“We need info. We need resources and information for women … It has always been an access problem.”
For those who are on the frontlines like Hunter-Lowrey, it’s important to avoid fearmongering, which could lead people to make reactionary and poorly informed decisions. Instead, continuing to advocate is the best course of action.
“It’s such a scary and difficult time to know what to do when the state is actively criminalizing a medical procedure,” Hunter-Lowrey said. “I think there have always been Black and queer and feminist communities and allies organizing for access and reproductive justice here. [Birthing people] need to assess and make a personal decision for what is best for their families. Though our legal rights to get an abortion have been removed by state laws, our experience as advocates is not going anywhere.”
Gabrielle A. Perry, MPH is an epidemiologist, writer, and the founder and executive director of The Thurman Perry Foundation, a Louisiana-based nonprofit operating nationally in service to women and girls impacted by incarceration. You can find her on Twitter at @GeauxGabrielle or at thurmanperryfoundation.org