Legislators stripped the parts of a bill that could have sent women to prison for terminating a pregnancy or taking the wrong birth control, then set aside the anti-abortion measure without a vote.
The move was taken against the will of House Bill 813 sponsor, Rep. Danny McCormick, but satisfied his desire to start a debate about life beginning at conception and the desire of many legislators not to be on record voting against an anti-abortion measure – even legislation that most prominent anti-abortion groups, the Catholic Church and Gov. John Bel Edwards opposed.
“It provides equal protection,” said McCormick, which he describes as giving an unborn baby the same rights as a born baby.
“The political winds are blowing and it won’t be addressed today,” he added.
The House approved, on a vote of 65 to 26, an amendment that replaced the wording, almost in its entirety, with language lifted from a Senate bill. Totally rewritten by the House, McCormick returned the legislation to the calendar, effectively killing it before the final vote on the measure.
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McCormick supporters in the gallery gave him standing ovation. He left podium with a raised fist and supporters did the same.
Much of the conversation among salons during the past week has been about little else since seven Republican men on the House Committee for the Administration of Criminal Justice advanced HB813 to the floor for Thursday’s debate.
The measure said life – and legal protections – begin at the moment of conception. That definition forbids abortions of any kind without exception and opened the possibility of prison to women terminating their pregnancies as well as using forms of birth control that prevent the egg from becoming implanted in the womb.
The bill’s exposure of women to criminal penalties, caught the attention of media nationally and internationally.
Members of the overwhelmingly anti-abortion Legislature feared having their vote against the bill coming back to haunt them as pro-abortion rights in campaign flyers and advertising next year when all 105 legislators have to run for reelection.
Supporters of the religiously based Abolitionist movement, which backed HB813, packed Memorial Hall and loudly reminded representatives they would remember how they voted. The crowd listened to sermons and sang “Amazing Grace” under an increased presence of state troopers and State Capitol security. Those who could find a seat in the spectator’s balcony did so and dozens of others milled around outside the chamber.
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The needle was threaded by Shreveport Rep. Alan Seabaugh and Baton Rouge Rep. Rick Edmonds – two of the most conservative and ardent anti-abortion lawmakers in the Louisiana Legislature. Edmonds is a pastor and Seabaugh was one of the seven Criminal Justice members who last week advanced the McCormick legislation out of committee and onto the House floor for Thursday’s debate.
Seabaugh apologized for voting to advance the measure.
“Pro-life bills fly off of this floor with little to no opposition,” Seabaugh said. “This bill criminalizes women.”
Edmonds said he had been criticized for taking the stance that despite believing life begins at conception, he also believes women are victims and shouldn’t face prison.
“That’s what the whole pro-life movement has been about for all these decades,” Edmonds said, adding that he has been criticized by supporters of the McCormick bill, sometimes in the severe terms. “They haven’t been friendly,” he said.
Amidst uncertainty on how to proceed, the House broke just after 3 p.m., with Democrats and Republicans meeting separately for more than an hour in the State Capitol basement.
At one point, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder spoke to the Democratic caucus.
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“As far as I’m concerned, we can shut this thing down now,” Rep. Sam Jenkins, of Shreveport, the Democratic leader said, upon returning to the House floor.
McCormick said he did not attend the Republican caucus. He didn’t want to face their barbed comments, he said.
Shortly before the debate was to begin, the State Capitol was evacuated when police found a suspicious package abandoned in Memorial Hall. During the brief respite outdoors Abolitionist members lobbied representatives not to amend HB813.
Soon after people were allowed back in the building and Schexnayder called the episode a false alarm.
In consultation Schexnayder, anti-abortion legislators, and allied organizations, Seabaugh submitted an amendment that substituted the language of HB813 with a near word-for-word replica of Senate Bill 342, which easily cleared the Senate a couple of weeks ago.
That Senate legislation coordinates language in the more than 100 civil and criminal state laws opposing the termination of pregnancies but omits the bits that would turn the procedure into a criminal act for women and criminalize the use certain birth control. Life begins at conception under provisions of the Senate measure sponsored by Democratic Monroe Sen. Katrina Jackson, who also was behind the statewide vote in 2016 putting anti-abortion language in the state Constitution. But her bill also includes exclusions for saving the life of the mother or the unborn child or when the pregnancy takes place outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian tubes.
Following the Senate’s language, McCormick’s measure now does all the same things.
If the U.S. Supreme Court follows through on a leaked draft ruling by overturning the 1973 Roe decision, the ruling would then trigger a 2006 law that would outlaw abortion in Louisiana, closing the state’s three clinics and requiring women seeking to terminate their pregnancies surgically to drive more than 600 miles to Illinois, North Carolina or New Mexico for the procedures.
Voting to amend HB813 (65): Speaker Schexnayder, Reps Bacala, Bagley, Beaullieu, Bishop, Bourriaque, Butler, Carrier, Coussan, Crews, Deshotel, DeVillier, DuBuisson, Echols, Edmonds, Edmonston, Emerson, Farnum, Firment, Fontenot, Freiberg, Frieman, Garofalo, Geymann, Goudeau, Harris, Hilferty, Hodges, Horton, Huval, Illg, Ivey, M. Johnson, Kerner, Mack, Magee, Marino, McFarland, McKnight, McMahen, Miguez, G. Miller, Mincey, Muscarello, Nelson, Orgeron, C. Owen, R. Owen, Pressly, Riser, Romero, Schamerhorn, Schlegel, Seabaugh, St. Blanc, Stagni, Stefanski, Tarver, Thomas, Thompson, Turner, Villio, Wheat, White and Zeringue.
Voting against amending HB813 (26): Reps Amedée, Boyd, Brass, Brown, Carpenter, R. Carter, W. Carter, Duplessis, Fisher, Freeman, Gaines, Hughes, Jefferson, Jenkins, Jordan, LaCombe, LaFleur, Landry, Larvadain, Lyons, Marcelle, McCormick, Newell, Phelps, Pierre and Willard.
Not Voting (14): Reps Adams, Bryant, Cormier, Cox, Davis, Gadberry, Glover, Green, Hollis, T. Johnson, D. Miller, Moore, Selders and Wright.
Tyler Bridges and Will Sentell contributed to this report