Will Louisiana Help The U.S. Gulf Become An Abortion-Free Zone?

June 17, 2014 6:00 a.m.

It seems as if every week we read another “The worst anti-abortion bill to be signed into law” story, yet each law truly does top the last in scope and impact on limiting abortion access to near non-existence. That is once again the case for Louisiana’s HB 388, the “Unsafe Abortion Protection Act,” which essentially argues that the only way to be completely certain you have protected someone from an “unsafe” abortion is to cut off her access to the procedure all together.

In Louisiana, that means likely closing the clinics in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and leaving Shreveport, Louisiana and its very close neighbor Bossier City as the only cities in the state where a pregnant person can obtain an abortion.

Slapping “safety” onto the bill is meant to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the law, masking the fact that its intent is to obstruct someone from accessing a medical procedure which the bill’s supporters believe is morally wrong. That small fig leaf was discarded when Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is expected to run for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016, decided to sign it into law at a local Baptist church.

If the bill works as it was drafted to, and New Orleans and Baton Rouge lose its providers because no hospital locally is willing to offer the doctors’ medically unnecessary admitting privileges, access in the Gulf area truly would reach crisis point. Whole Women’s Health of Beaumont, Texas, already closed as a result of a similar law in that state, and if the two Louisiana cities also shut down their clinics that would leave no southern abortion clinics between Houston, Texas and Mobile, Alabama – a stretch of over 450 miles. The clinic in Mobile, too, is facing the same situation as Texas and Louisiana when it comes to admitting privileges, and is open only because a court order has put the state’s own law on hold during an ongoing trial.

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The law won’t just affect the pregnant people wanting abortions in Louisiana and Texas, but Mississippi, too. For many in that state, which has only one clinic located in Jackson, it is closer, quicker and cheaper to go to a clinic in Baton Rouge to end a pregnancy. In fact, the idea that someone wanting an abortion could always leave a state and use a clinic in a neighboring state was one of the key arguments that both Texas and Mississippi have used in the courts to support their claim that shutting down most or all of the clinics in a state does not impose an “undue burden” on those trying to get an abortion.

That’s where these admitting privileges TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) law start to fall apart – or pull together, depending on your perspective. Each TRAP bill that passes in an underserved, low access southern state builds off of the others, using the other states’ clinics as proof that the bills don’t create insurmountable obstacles for obtaining abortions.

Yet as many of the clinics in question are open only because they are still in mid-litigation, and have the potential to be shuttered after a judge’s ruling, it’s not a realistic depiction of the landscape of abortion availability.

Even worse, as some are shuttered, those that do remain open will be forced to take in more and more patients, leaving wait times longer, terminations more expensive, and in some cases snowballing until an abortion cannot be obtained at all. Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport has already announced that it is preparing for even greater patient loads, and no doubt the Bossier City clinic is doing the same.

Sadly, as a law TRAP bills are nothing new, and as a mechanism for ending abortion they work mostly as a domino effect to eventually stop most abortion clinics from operating. Those that remain despite the laws will then be targeted even more brutally by abortion opponents, either via protests of the clinics or the hospitals keeping them open, direct provider harassment, or by making it too difficult to keep their clinics running either by zoning them out of existence, attempting to pass highly localized laws or pressuring anyone who does business with them.

In other words, first you take out the majority of the clinics with mostly unattainable regulations. Afterwards, you pick off the remainders one by one by one.

Some of that is already occurring in Louisiana, where anti-abortion advocates are operating a campaign to stop contractors working on the new Planned Parenthood clinic being built in New Orleans. With fewer clinics to focus on, the ability to pressure the remaining abortion providers to close will be that much greater.

As clinic access disappears in the Gulf area, the ability for private doctors and physicians to be able to assist an occasional pre-existing patient is shrinking, as well. Already we have seen states restrict the ability for a physician to do an occasional abortion, but Louisiana’s law goes further than any before.

Tucked into the bill is a requirement that any doctor who performs more than five abortions per year must register as an abortion provider – a rule that would both require his or her office to fall under all the regulations required of an abortion clinic, as well as open that doctor up to the harassment that providers in clinics face daily. In comparison, other abortion hostile states that have also passed these TRAP bills that define when a doctor should be officially considered an abortion provider usually allows a physician to do four to 40 abortions per month.

Despite claiming they want to mandate admitting privileges to protect women and ensure a continuity of care, when it comes to allowing pregnant people to receive abortions from personal doctors they have longstanding relationships with, anti-abortion advocates have restricted that option out of existence as well.

“We all want women to be safe, but this law doesn’t protect women’s health,” said Jennifer Dalven, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project in a statement. “In fact, major medical groups like ACOG and AMA oppose these laws because they actually harm women by preventing them from getting high quality medical care. Given that doctors and medical groups oppose these laws, we have to ask ourselves why some politicians are pushing them?”

The Louisiana TRAP bill will no doubt get challenged in court, just like the Texas, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Mississippi and Alabama versions have been. It will likely go through the 5th Circuit as well, just as Texas and Mississippi have before it. Considering this is the same circuit whose panel of judges declared shutting down 80 percent of the clinics in Texas was no hardship to women, that doesn’t bode well for success. But as more states become involved and more clinics are potentially shuttered, it will become more difficult for the judges in the 5th to declare impossible to obtain hospital admitting privileges don’t create an undue burden. At least, not without proving that their ideology is clouding their interpretation of the definition.

While lawmakers defend HB 388 both to their constituents and to the courts, claiming it is not an attempt to make abortion unattainable but a means of ensuring that unsafe clinics don’t remain open, reproductive rights advocates must remind them of what they really believe and will say in their unguarded moments:

“Every single abortion clinic in America is a house of horrors.”

Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist, and the author of Crow After Roe: How Women’s Health Is the New Separate But Equal and How to Change That. Robin’s articles have appeared at Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine, Ms. Magazine, In These Times, Truth Out, AlterNet, RH Reality Check and other publications.

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