La. Spent Over $1M Defending Abortion Laws
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana has spent more than $1 million to defend its abortion restrictions against a series of lawsuits since 2014, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through open-records requests.
And it's set to spend even more.
State contracts with private law firms show the state repeatedly adding thousands of dollars to the agreements, extending them as the cases drag on while Louisiana fights to implement abortion policies that have been halted by the courts.
The ballooning costs also come as the state, amid a looming budget shortfall that has colleges and public safety programs possibly on the chopping block, faces a $4.7 million legal bill from lawyers who won a federal court decision in favor of a lawsuit brought by a clinic that performs abortions. The state has appealed the decision.
Louisiana, like many of its Deep South neighbors, doesn't hesitate to act on its opposition to abortion.
The state has an unenforceable law that allows for someone who "commits the crime of abortion " to be sentenced to a decade of hard labor in prison. Its anti-abortion governor, a Democrat, signed a pre-emptive ban on abortions after 15 weeks that will go into effect if a federal court upholds a similar law in Mississippi. The Republican-controlled, deeply religious legislature introduces a spate of anti-abortion bills every year.
A spokesman for Gov. John Bel Edwards said the governor thinks the cases are worth fighting. The state's top prosecutor said he'll keep defending Louisiana's laws through a combination of in-house lawyers and outside counsel.
"We will exhaust every legal option we have to ensure these laws are upheld," Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, said in a statement, adding that the private firms have provided excellent legal services. "In Louisiana, it is clear, we will not put a price tag on an innocent, unborn child."
Of the at least $1.14 million the state has paid out to private attorneys on the cases, the contracts show roughly 80 percent of the money has gone to firms led by Kyle Duncan, a prominent religious-rights attorney who was recently confirmed to a seat on a federal appeals court in New Orleans after a nomination from President Donald Trump. Duncan referred questions to the attorney general's office.
The contents of the five lawsuits range widely, but they have a singular claim: The state is actively trying to deprive women of their constitutional right to an abortion.
One case, filed in 2014, challenges a law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital no more than 30 miles (50 kilometers) from where the abortion is carried out. The rule was framed as way to protect women if something goes wrong during an abortion, but critics point out that the state doesn't set this requirement for other, riskier medical procedures.
A federal court in Louisiana, buttressing a previous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court over a similar law in Texas, ruled last year that the admitting-privileges requirement was unconstitutional. Lawyers for Hope Medical Group for Women, a reproductive health center that brought the lawsuit, have since requested $4.7 million from the state to pay for their legal fees. Louisiana immediately appealed the court's decision.
"The coastline of Louisiana is not eroding nearly as fast as a woman's right to determine her own outcome," said Kathaleen Pittman, an administrator at Hope Medical, one of three facilities in the state that perform abortions.
The health center also is fighting a set of abortion laws passed in 2016, all of which are on hold pending the resolution of the lawsuit, as well as a set of abortion licensing regulations.
One rule would require women to wait three days after an initial doctor's visit before they could get an abortion, though an exception could be made if a woman lived more than 150 miles (240 kilometers) away from a clinic. Another law would require that physicians ensure the remains of a fetus or embryo are buried or cremated, a proposal that critics said would effectively ban abortions that are carried out with medication.
"There's a constant chipping away, making it harder for people to get health care," said Rochelle Tafolla, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which has filed lawsuits challenging delays on the group's abortion license and an attempt to strip the organization's Medicaid funding. Planned Parenthood does not currently perform abortions in the state.
Despite the litigation, some Louisiana lawmakers continue to introduce anti-abortion bills that critics say would almost certainly embroil the state in additional lawsuits.
State Sen. John Milkovich, the Democrat who sponsored the bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks, said he wants Louisiana to prohibit the procedure entirely and won't let the threat of a lawsuit dictate his legislation.
"There's no more valid, worthwhile or justified expenditure of money than money spent to stop abortion and protect the lives of the unborn," he said.