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Voters Will Get A Chance To Defend Or Undermine Abortion Rights On Nov. 3

The Hope Medical Group for Women abortion clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Center for Reproductive Rights
The Hope Medical Group for Women abortion clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Alex Fabrizio Sumpter is a mother of two children, and she’d already endured two miscarriages when she went for the first ultrasound of her latest pregnancy over the summer.

“I saw that there was a heartbeat, I could see it on the screen,” she said. “And so that was, you know, I was really happy and pleased to see that.”

Then Sumpter, a professor at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, talked with her doctor.

She learned her baby’s heartbeat was dangerously low, and it was far smaller in size than it should have been at that stage in pregnancy. A second ultrasound a week later confirmed it: Her doctor said the pregnancy was not viable. She gave Sumpter the number for an abortion clinic.

“She wrote, ‘You'll get through this’ on the note. It really meant a lot to me to have her support. She was really, really kind and wonderful,” Sumpter said.

Sumpter wanted to take the abortion pill to speed along her inevitable miscarriage. But the nearest abortion clinic had a three-week wait time, which would push her beyond the pregnancy stage when the pill can be taken. She began calling clinics in and out of state and ended up traveling to Florida one weekend, to a clinic where staff told her most of their patients came from Louisiana and Mississippi.

“I actually got a discount for coming from over 100 miles away. And it was crazy. They told me to be prepared to wait all day, because they were so packed. It was standing room only in the clinic,” she said.

Her story illustrates what abortion might very well look like if the proponents of a constitutional amendment succeed in ending abortion in Louisiana: That is, extremely hard to get, even for cases like Sumpter’s.

The Push To End Abortion In Louisiana

On a bright Saturday morning over the weekend, State Sen. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) spoke to an outdoor crowd in New Roads, Louisiana, part of a multi-day tour across the state.

“No one's to decide, ever, whether a child lives or dies but God,” she told the crowd.

Jackson is the key lawmaker behind Amendment 1, the anti-abortion constitutional amendment on the ballot November 3rd.

“When you push that button, when you tell others to go into the ballot box booth and push that button, we're shining a light that will allow Louisiana to please God,” Jackson told supporters.

Amendment 1 asks: “Do you support an amendment declaring that, to protect human life, a right to abortion and the funding of abortion shall not be found in the Louisiana Constitution?”

A ‘yes’ vote means that the Louisiana Supreme Court could never interpret a right to abortion in the state Constitution, in a Roe v. Wade type decision.

A ‘no’ vote leaves open the possibility of state constitutional protections for abortion rights.

Jackson wrote the bill to put the amendment on November’s ballot, alongside anti-abortion groups including Louisiana Right to Life, where Benjamin Clapper is the executive director. Clapper said his organization and others are actively campaigning to ensure the amendment — which they call the Love Life Amendment — passes.

“There's never been a ballot initiative in Louisiana on the issue of abortion,” Clapper said. “People say the state's pro-life, but you don't really know until you put it in front of the people and have them vote on it.”

Clapper called the amendment “restrained,” noting that it doesn’t preclude the legislature from one day passing laws that expand abortion access — though the state government has long been dominated by anti-abortion politicians in both parties.

The amendment would give sole power over abortion laws to state legislators — and Clapper said that’s where it belongs.

Petrice Sams-Abiodun, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast’s vice president of strategic partnerships for Louisiana, takes the opposite view.

“A constitution should provide rights and liberties and freedoms, not take them away. So we don't want politicians playing with the constitution to promote their agenda,” she said.

The Abortion Battle In State Supreme Courts

Across the U.S., state constitutions are becoming the latest battleground in the fight over abortion. Supreme Courts in 13 states have already ruled that their constitutions protect the right to abortion. West Virginia and Alabama have passed anti-abortion constitutional amendments similar to Amendment 1.

But the amendment’s power would skyrocket in the event Roe v. Wade were overturned, something that’s become increasingly likely after the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her possible replacement by Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

If Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, Louisiana has a trigger law that would take immediate effect banning all abortions in the state, except in cases whether the pregnant person is likely to die. There would be no exceptions if a fetus died in the womb, or for rape or incest.

And with Amendment 1 in place, there would be no legal avenue to challenge that law. Anyone who wanted an abortion would need to travel to get one, likely much further away than Florida — states across the South are poised to ban abortion.

“If people have to travel to get an abortion, that just means that people who have means still have access to abortion. We shouldn't be punishing people because they live in poverty,” said Katrina L. Rogers, the campaign manager for Louisiana for Personal Freedoms, a coalition of reproductive rights groups fighting the amendment.

“I think in this moment, we really take for granted the access and the rights and the privileges that we have, and assume that they will always be a part of our lives,” she added.

Rogers said the campaign is hoping to tie a range of issues together, from environmental justice to economic inequality and reproductive rights, using the campaign to spur a broader progressive movement in the state.

For Nicholls State University professor Fabrizio Sumpter, the amendment is part and parcel of the slew of anti-abortion laws passed in Louisiana. She said those laws collectively not only made getting an abortion that much harder, but even threatened her health — one of the reasons she decided to write about her experience in the Washington Post.

After taking the abortion pill at the end of the gestational limit when it’s approved, the medication wasn’t effective. Sumpter had to drive herself to the hospital when she began hemorrhaging two weeks after she returned home.

“People say, 'well, if mother's life is in danger, then it's fine,'” she said. “But there was no reason to think my life was in danger until I started hemorrhaging. If I had been able to hasten my miscarriage and have my miscarriage when I was six weeks or seven weeks, I probably would not have — I certainly would not have hemorrhaged.”

Amendment 1 will be a “yes” or “no” vote on the ballot, but Sumpter said her story shows the issue of — and access to — abortion is far from black and white.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Rosemary Westwood is the public reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.
Rosemary Westwood
Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.