BATON ROUGE, La. – Abortion clinics in Louisiana can continue operating while a lawsuit challenging the state’s near total ban on abortions is resolved, a state judge ruled Thursday.
The preliminary injunction issued by state district judge Donald Johnson in Baton Rouge is the latest development amid a flurry of court challenges to state “trigger” laws that were crafted in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established abortion rights, which it did June 24.
For weeks, access to abortion has been flickering in Louisiana where there are three clinics. A statewide abortion ban has taken effect twice and been blocked twice since the Supreme Court’s ruling in June. Johnson had entered a temporary hold on enforcement July 11, pending arguments in the case that were heard Monday.
Johnson's new ruling allows clinics to continue providing abortion procedures while a lawsuit filed by a north Louisiana abortion clinic and others continues. The order gives attorneys on both sides 30 days to develop plans for a trial on whether the law should be permanently blocked.
The state could appeal his order, however, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has said he expects the case to wind up at the state Supreme Court.
In his reasons for the decision, Johnson said that due to the “vagueness” of the law, members of the Medical Students for Choice — one of the plaintiffs in the case — do not have “adequate notice if, or to what extent, they can continue to perform or assist” in abortions. Johnson said that is a violation of the members' rights to due process.
“This harm is not speculative,” Johnson wrote. He added that members of Medical Students for Choice risk prosecution if they were to incorrectly apply abortion laws.
Despite the new ruling, Landry said in a statement that he looks “forward to ending this legal circus by getting the case to the State’s Supreme Court as soon as possible.”
The lead plaintiff in the case is a north Louisiana clinic that has continued abortion care in Shreveport under Johnson's temporary order. Clinics in Baton Rouge and New Orleans had stopped operations pending Johnson's decision on the injunction. A spokeswoman for those clinics said both were open Thursday, scheduling patients for counseling and abortions.
“With this decision, Chief Judge Johnson determined that we are likely to succeed on the merits of our lawsuit,” Joanna Wright, an attorney for the clinic, said in an email. “We are prepared to prove our case and hope to obtain a final ruling that the trigger bans are unconstitutional and cannot be enforced.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit don’t deny that the state can now ban abortion as a result of the Supreme Court ruling. Instead, they contend that Louisiana now has multiple, conflicting trigger mechanisms in the law. They also argue that state law is unclear on whether it bans an abortion prior to a fertilized egg implanting in the uterus.
And while the law provides an exception for “medically futile” pregnancies in cases of fetuses with fatal abnormalities, the plaintiffs noted it gives no definition of the term and that state health officials have not yet provided a list of conditions that would qualify as medically futile.
In Louisiana, there is little question that an abortion ban will eventually be in effect in the state where the Legislature has long been dominated by abortion opponents. But the court case has resulted in more time for the state's three abortion clinics — in Shreveport, Baton Rouge and New Orleans — to stay open.
Debate over the ban stretched into the State Bond Commission meeting Thursday. Members withheld a $39 million non-cash line of credit for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board power plant project as a way to “send a message” to city leaders who said they would not enforce the statewide abortion ban.
“Today, our Bond Commission forced elected officials in New Orleans to decide if they will enforce State law,” Landry said in a written statement.
Landry was not present for Thursday's meeting but called on the commission earlier in the week to not approve financing for any deals involving New Orleans until officials have “affirmed that they will enforce State laws.” Not all were in favor of this approach, including Gov. John Bel Edwards.
“The idea that you seek to punish all the people living in a certain area because you are at odds with some of their elected officials, that’s not a reasonable approach,” Edwards, a Democrat who opposes abortions, said on his monthly radio show Wednesday. "You are not just punishing those people."
Associated Press writer Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this report.