Democratic pariah: Will Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards be cast out over abortion ban?

There used to be lots of "pro-life" Democrats. In 2019, Edwards' abortion ban is an embarrassment for the party

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published May 31, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (AP/Lee Celano)
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (AP/Lee Celano)

Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, the only Democratic chief executive in the Deep South, just embarrassed — or perhaps betrayed — his party in the midst of a heated battle over reproductive freedom. His move has reignited an age-old conundrum for Democrats: purity versus pragmatism.

Pragmatism most often wins elections, or at least so the story goes. But what happens when an ideological standard strikes at the core of a party’s principles? On Thursday, Edwards signed a bill that would ban abortions in Louisiana as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which often occurs as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women are even aware they’re pregnant. The bill includes no exceptions for rape or incest. It only allows exceptions to prevent a "serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function" or the death of the mother. The bill would also penalize doctors who perform the procedure, making them face a $1,000 fine or up to two years in prison.

Louisiana’s abortion ban is part a raft of new extremist restrictions on access to abortion in a slew of red states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio. Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, a Republican, signed the nation's most extreme abortion ban into law earlier in May that makes performing the procedure at any stage of pregnancy a felony crime punishable by up to life imprisonment, with no exceptions except health risks to the mother.

Conservative lawmakers in these states clearly hope to test the Supreme Court’s new conservative bloc on a reversal or modification of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Similar restrictions in states like Arkansas, Kentucky, Iowa and North Dakota have recently been struck down by federal judges.

Louisiana’s prohibition would take hold only if neighboring Mississippi’s ban is upheld by a federal appeals court — but a district court judge temporarily blocked that Mississippi law last week. Which is exactly what happened with the last abortion ban Edwards signed into law.

In May of 2018, Edwards signed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. (The current legal standard for when an abortion is no longer legally permissible, as established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, is roughly 24 weeks.) Like the 2019 "fetal heartbeat" ban, the 2018 ban at 15 weeks was introduced not by a member of the Republican majority in the legislature, but by Democratic state Sen. John Milkovich. This makes Louisiana’s abortion ban — passed by the Republican-controlled legislature 79-23 — the first in the nation to be crafted and approved by Democrats.

Edwards, who is up for re-election this fall against two Republican opponents, acknowledged that his support for the abortion ban puts him at odds with national Democratic leaders and donors.

"I know that for many in the national party, on the national scene, that's not a good fit. But I will tell you, here in Louisiana, I speak and meet with Democrats who are pro-life every single day," Edwards said on his monthly radio show May 8.  

The Democratic Party's 2016 platform said that "every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion." Three-quarters of Democrats believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a figure that has increased by more than 10 points since the mid-1990s, according to the Pew Research Center.

"My position hasn't changed. In eight years in the legislature, I was a pro-life legislator," Edwards told reporters before signing the bill. "When I ran for governor, I said that I was pro-life. And so that's something that's consistent."

Edwards did indeed campaign on a "pro-life" (or anti-choice) platform when he was first elected governor. In a TV ad released during the 2015 campaign, he explained how he and his wife made the choice not to have an abortion after the couple discovered their daughter would be born with a spinal birth defect. Edwards also signed a bill requiring “In God We Trust” to be displayed in schools, and has cited his personal faith as his guidance on the abortion issue — something for which Democrats like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a presidential candidate, have criticized him.

As Democrats nationally contend with a new version of "whack-a-mole" as restrictive anti-choice laws pop up throughout the nation, some pro-choice advocates have shouted down dissent within the Democratic ranks.

“We are in the fight of our lives, and Democratic Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is about to betray us,” warned #VOTEPROCHOICE, a group that supports pro-choice candidates, ahead of Thursday’s signing of the ban. “Members of the Democratic Party must stop treating reproductive freedom as a negotiable issue. The Democratic Party platform has a very comprehensive plank outlining an agenda for reproductive rights, health and justice. We need to hold electeds like Governor Edwards to it.”

NARAL Pro-Choice America Political Director Nicole Brener-Schmitz said that Edwards had "turned his back on the women of Louisiana today at a time when they needed him most,” and promised, “He won’t get a pass just because he is a Democrat.”

Currently, Edwards is one of just three Democratic governors in a broad swath of states across the southern half of the country — and the only one who is anti-choice. While anti-abortion Democrats in the House and Senate have generally been tolerated by the party, with their ranks dwindling in recent years, Democratic governors who oppose abortion access have long been problematic for a party that is moving steadily leftward on the issue. In 2006, then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, also a Democrat, signed a Democratic-sponsored “trigger law” that would automatically ban all abortions, except when birth threatens a mother’s life, if and when the Supreme Court overturns its Roe v. Wade decision. That goal is now in sight.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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