A B O R T I O N
PROLOGUE: Another Fashion Statement Bites the Dust
The blonde network reporter is confused.
All the nice people with "Right To Life" stickers on their chests
are staring at her, and it isn't with that "You're A Teevee Star" look.
No, not hardly.
This is Wrath of God stuff she's getting from the prim-and-proper set.
In fact, it is apparent to everyone in the packed-to-the-ceiling Senate
chamber on this Saturday that Ms. Network sticks out like a sore thumb as
senators debate whether they will override Gov. Buddy Roemer's veto of a
virtual ban on abortion -- a bill that could become the strictest
statute in the nation.
She is dressed in purple. Abortion-rights purple. To add insult to the
brewing angst among the pro-lifers, her cameraman also is dressed in
"They got me out of bed at 1:30 this morning to come over here," she
later explains. "How did I know purple was the abortion-rights color?
Jeez, purple's such a big fashion color this year."
Well, maybe it is in the other 49 states, but there's only one thing
purple means this Saturday in Baton Rouge: You're for the "killing" of
15,000 unborn children in Louisiana every year.
Or, as Baton Rouge Rep. Louis "Woody" Jenkins is fond of saying,
"You're for the killing of 15,000 little PEOPLE" as he points to
replicas of the fetus at various stages of development.
Jenkins is most proud of his model of a five-month-old fetus, which he
refers to as this "little boy" or "little girl."
On the last night of the 1990 legislative session, Ted Koppel is in no
mood for Jenkins' plastic people. There, for the nation to see, is
Jenkins explaining on "Nightline" his abortion bill -- complete with his
"Put the plastic baby down, Mr. Jenkins," mutters Koppel,
live-via-satellite from his lofty cocoon in Washington D.C. Without
knowing it, Ted has condensed three months of often surreal moments into
three seconds of soundbite-life.
About the same time "Nightline" is signing off at midnight, the
Louisiana Legislature is signing off for the session, adjourning for
good a day after passing an abortion bill.
Not just ANY abortion bill. But a real-honest-to-goodness
"Let's-beat-up-the-flag-burner" abortion bill.
I: The Holy Crusade
On a bright April day, three charismatic Christians obtain
parade permits from the City of Baton Rouge and proceed to quite
literally shout Bible verse AT the State Capitol. They stand on the
steps, shouting up at the building that the Legislature's "judgement is
not God's judgement! The Supreme Court is not the most supreme judge of
what is right! It is God who is the supreme court! Abortion is murder!
For three straight days they repeat this ritual, driving workers in the
building to distraction because the ministerings can be heard all the
way up in the 24th floor offices of the attorney general. Some workers
devise evil torture for the three earnest saviors on the steps below
that includes boiling oil.
The push to ban abortion starts in April, almost a year after the U.S.
Supreme Court in its Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services decision
said that it would not ban abortion outright, but would allow states to
set some limits on abortion.
Jenkins is the point man for the anti-abortion movement for the 1990
session, ready for the challenge of leading the Pure and Righteous to
victory, spewing soundbites and showering photo-op on the unwashed
He files legislation banning abortions unless the woman's life is
threatened by the pregnancy, and it become House Bill 1637. Jenkins'
bill will criminalize abortions, making it a felony for someone to
perform one, punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 and 10 years in
He knows from day one that Buddy Roemer will veto such a measure.
Roemer says the only bill he'll sign is one that allows abortions in the
cases of rape, incest, or if the woman's life is threatened by the
Politically, Roemer's approach sounds like a pretty good compromise.
It's the "fight fire with fire" approach. The governor gets to give
equally good soundbites with words like "violent event that is rape" to
counter the anti-abortion side's "tearing the unborn limb from limb
during the abortion."
But Roemer soon finds he is almost alone in his position. Even his
handpicked House speaker and Senate president have co-authored bills
II: The Art of No Compromise
On the third day of the session, about 1,000 anti-abortion supporters
crowd on the capitol steps to hear from Senate President Allen Bares,
House Speaker Jimmy Dimos and Jenkins, who promise the Legislature will
pass a bill banning abortion.
"The bottom line is we don't intend to compromise in our effort to
protect human life," says Sandy McDade, head of the Eagle Forum. Those
words will come back to haunt McDade less than three months later.
H.B. 1637 goes to the House Administration of Criminal Justice
Committee, headed by Norco Rep. Ralph Miller who knows the bill is hot
and promises to devote one day of testimony to the pro-life alliance and
one day to the pro-choice faction.
Over in the Senate, a virtual carbon copy of Jenkins' bill is sent to
the Health and Welfare Committee, coincidentally chaired by its author,
Mike Cross of Baker.
What the bill is doing in Health and Welfare to begin with is a
mystery. By Senate rule, it should be referred to a judiciary panel
because it deals not with health or welfare, but with criminal statutes.
Cross grabs the first headlines in the holy crusade.
Just 45 minutes before his committee is to meet on June 5, he abruptly
places his abortion bill on the panel's agenda. Cross says he is not
sure how much longer he will chair the panel because of committee
shakeups instituted in the wake of the ouster of Bares as president and
the ascent of Sammy Nunez.
The disorganized abortion-rights people are stunned when they enter the
committee room and see it jammed to the rafters with anti-abortion
supporters. The word has somehow gotten out to the pro-life lobby but
not to the pro-choice folks that Cross is taking up the bill.
During a mere 30-minute hearing, Cross repeatedly cuts off testimony
by abortion-rights activists. Several efforts to bottle the bill up in
committee are killed, including one to put off action for a week.
"Why don't you also make a motion that we meet next week at Memorial
Stadium," Cross angrily and sarcastically suggests.
He is joining Jenkins on the abortion high ground.
"I don't care -- I don't -- if 80 percent of the people in my district
are pro-abortionists. I am not going to change my mind," he says.
His district includes the Bethany World Prayer Center, one of the heavy
hitters in the anti-abortion battle.
Three days after the Cross bill is approved in Senate committee, the
House Criminal Justice panel takes up H.B. 1637.
Jenkins opens the hearing the first day by testifying before the panel
it has "the opportunity to influence not only what is happening in our
state, but in the entire United States."
Dr. Jerome Lejeune, a noted French geneticist, testifies "the symphony
of life" begins at the moment the sperm pierces the egg, meaning any
abortion -- including those for rape and incest -- is murder.
Those arguments are shot down the next day by a host of abortion-rights
experts, who testify no one knows when life actually begins.
After two days -- seven hours of testimony -- the committee unanimously
approves the bill and sends it back to the full House for debate.
Miller explains the panel did so because it wanted a "clean record of
testimony," in case the bill is finally approved and makes its way to
the Supreme Court where it could be used by anti-abortionists to test
Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision legalizing abortion.
But a couple of members of the panel privately say they're "trying to
stick it to Roemer," so they vote the bill out of committee without
The bottom line in the Legislature is that the anti-abortionists have
enough votes to pass some form of the bill in both chambers. If they do,
Roemer -- who is not popular with the Legislature -- will have to put
his signature where his rhetoric is and veto the measure.
III: Cheers From Angola
Despite the obviously impending approval of H.B. 1637 in the House,
some representatives are still concerned.
Because the bill prescribes such a stiff penalty for a person
committing an abortion, River Ridge Rep. Robert Garrity claims the
measure could end up in a state court testing Louisiana's second-degree
murder statutes -- never mind ever making it to the nation's high court.
Garrity, an attorney, says the bill appears to create a separate crime
of second-degree murder for doctors, as well as the 10-year, $100,000
penalty. He worries the penalty clause is a sure way of having the bill
tossed out in court because current second-degree murder statutes
usually carry a term of life in prison.
"I've got some guys up at Angola (serving life for second-degree
murder) who are clapping and cheering about the bill," muses Garrity.
"They want to see it pass because the first thing they're going to do is
come in and file a writ saying, 'If he (doctor) gets 10 years, then I
want 10 years.'"
A week later, the full House takes up the bill, and it's showtime for
He starts his speech with LeJeuene's perfect soundbite, "The symphony
The abortion-rights lawmakers are slaughtered in their attempts to at
least amend on the rape and incest clauses. Dimos, a co-author of the
bill, also rules several attempts to make the state responsible for
the children born of mothers who wanted an abortion are not pertinent to
New Orleans Rep. Mitch Landrieu also questions Jenkins about the
clause, "Whoever commits the crime of abortion..." The word "doctor" or
"abortionist" is nowhere to be found, leading Landrieu and others to
worry that if a woman induced an abortion on herself, she could end up
in the slammer for 10 years. Jenkins says that would never happen, but
it is clear the bill offers the woman no protection against prosecution.
Amid shouts of "Amen" and "Hallelujah," the House votes 74-27 in favor
of H.B. 1637.
Some admittedly pro-choice representatives say they voted for the bill
to simply snub Roemer. Even the majority of the governor's handpicked
floor leaders and committee chairmen had voted in favor of the bill.
IV: Rabbi Roasting and Doctor Cooking
About a week after the House approval, State Police radios throughout
the capitol crackle that something is going on down at the entrance to
the House chamber. Bemused troopers congregate as a House
sergeant-at-arms politely explains to the pro-choicers they are not
welcome inside, what with their unorthodox dress style.
One young woman is dressed in a black body stocking with white tights.
Around the crotch, prop-blood is spattered. Another young woman wears a
headpiece festooned with coathangers. They are protesting the possible
return of the back-street abortion.
"Jesus, we hoped those kinds would stay out of this," says an
embarrassed abortion-rights lobbyist who watches.
On June 20, Jenkins' bill moves to Cross' committee, again an apparent
contradiction of Senate rules.
The hearing room is filled to capacity, with another 100 pro-life
supporters patiently waiting outside for seats.
Jenkins, plastic babies in hand, tells the committee about "The
symphony of life..." Reporters take out their crossword puzzles.
Cross makes it perfectly clear he will tolerate little from the
pro-choice crowd when he asks a testifying rabbi a series of
embarrassing questions. Some committee members are stunned by his
Panel member Richard Neeson of Shreveport even refers to the
questioning of the cleric as "rabbi roasting."
"I guess after rabbi roasting comes doctor cooking," quips Dr. Holly
Galland, who followed the rabbi to the witness table.
Cross dismisses that thought, but Galland is proved right when the
senator characterizes one of her responses as "the most irresponsible
answer I've ever heard."
The panel deadlocks 3-3 on the bill because Alexandria Sen. Joe
McPherson is absent. Lobbyists say some of the pro-choice crowd got to
The panel eventually breaks its deadlock and passes the bill out of
committee without recommendation.
Now the full Senate must vote whether to debate the bill, since this
action gives it no place on the upper chamber calendar.
That very afternoon, it does.
The holy crusade reaches the Senate June 26. The national media
descends on Baton Rouge and one network producer sends the message to
Nunez that they'd Like it Very Much if the Senate votes on the measure
by 4 p.m., giving them enough time to get the story on the evening news.
"We heard testimony in committee that the symphony of life..." Cross
starts. Industrious capitol reporters send out for snacks. The national
media meanwhile is snacking on soundbites and photo-ops.
"This is what this bill is all about today," Cross continues, holding
up one of Jenkins' plastic fetuses.
No, counters New Orleans Sen. Jon Johnson, it's about something else.
"I don't have a right to say to the women of this state when you should
or should not have an abortion, and you know what gentlemen? You don't
have that right either," Johnson says.
Hours later, after every attempt to amend on Roemer's rape and incest
exception is killed, the Senate votes 24-15 in favor of the bill and
sends it to the governor.
The pro-life forces are ecstatic, but have missed the point by not
understanding the significance of the vote.
While the Senate has approved the bill, it has fallen two votes short
of the two-thirds that will be needed to override Roemer's inevitable
The bill scoots back over to the House for concurrence on a couple of
minor Senate amendments that clean up some of the language problems.
Pineville Rep. Carl Gunter takes the opportunity to Shed Some Light on
this whole rape-incest question, envisioning a race of superhumans
created out of the horror of incest.
"When I got to thinking, the way we get thoroughbred horses and
thoroughbred dogs is through inbreeding. Maybe we could get a
super-sharp kid," Gunter says. Some representatives are seen burying
their heads in their hands.
V: Tastes Great, Less Filling
Because the Legislature is still in session, Roemer has 10 days to
either sign, ignore, or veto the bill. If he ignores it, the bill
becomes law without his signature, a sort-of "hold-your-nose" act.
The governor says he'll veto it. The anti-abortionists say they'll
override. Tastes great. Less filling. Tastes great. Less filling.
During the 10-day period, both sides in the battle gather at different
times on the capitol steps to hold media events.
The first to put on a show is the abortion-rights side, which trots out
THE Jane Roe -- Norma McCorvey -- to espouse abortion on demand.
The noon event is stolen away from McCorvey by Gloria Allred, a Los
Angeles-based women's rights advocate who uncorks, "Read our lipstick --
no more abortion-restrictive criminal laws."
A few moments before the anti-abortion rally is to begin that
afternoon, Jenkins is preparing to read and hand out to the media a
handwritten appeal to Sammy Nunez to override. The letter is from his
mother, but it seems no one had the courtesy, or guts, to tell Sammy his
mother had joined the crusade. The release of the letter is avoided when
someone -- possibly Cross -- yanks the letter out of Jenkins' hand, who is
standing in front of a "Jenkins For Governor" banner.
Rumors start circulating that some of the pro-life lawmakers have
less-than-normal sexual predelictions, and have even paid for abortions.
Another popular rumor deals with one of the leading pro-life lawmakers
who allegedly propositioned a man in a public bathroom.
The pro-life movement isn't sitting still, either.
A few days after the final approval of H.B. 1637, a telegram purported
to be from Nobel laureate Mother Teresa arrives at the governor's
office, urging Roemer to "protect all of God's children."
Later, it is determined the telegram is from Lafayette priest Joseph
Brennan. Mother Teresa says those are her sentiments but she never gave
permission for her name to be used.
By the middle of the 10-day period, Roemer still is playing a waiting
game. He says he is trying to determine if he has the votes to sustain
the veto before signing the veto message, but administration sources say
he really is scared Cross will jerk his own anti-abortion bill off the
Senate calendar and try to ram it through the process if the governor
vetoes the House bill.
On July 5, white representatives in the House start telling stories of
being approached by anti-abortion lawmakers who offer them a vote on a
key education bill in return for the override vote. It's Roemer's single
board of higher education bill, a measure most conservative whites in
the lower chamber support, but not enough for the 70-vote majority
needed for passage.
But two black lawmakers allege they have been approached by the same
anti-abortion representatives who offer to vote to KILL the education
bill in return for a vote to override.
Dale Smith, a prime anti-abortion mover, is unswayed by allegations of
While he denies there is any dealmaking going on, Smith does concede
"the issues coincidentally co-exist, and it's been discussed."
He also adds, "I feel like swapping the superboard for 15,000 children
(who would not be aborted) is a pretty good deal."
An hour after the story surfaces, the House hastily votes to kill the
A day later, Roemer vetoes the nation's toughest anti-abortion bill,
and within hours the House is considering an override.
VI: Win One for the Barbarians
Most of the television cameras are long gone by the time the House gets
the veto message that day, and Jenkins, apparently aware of this, asks
the House to make consideration of the veto override its first special
order for Saturday, the next day. That effort fails, but it becomes
clear the House has enough votes at that moment to override, which it
One Republican lawmaker walks to the front of the chamber to get a
printout of the vote and mutters, "Welcome to the land of the
At 11 p.m. that night, bleary-eyed senators finally get to the veto
message, but can't even decide if they want to debate the override.
In one of the more surreal moments of the abortion debate, the upper
chamber votes instead to immediately adjourn, drawing a chorus of
applause from the mostly anti-abortion gallery. The few abortion-rights
folks just sit and smile, knowing they at that moment are close to being
Still, Roemer is worried. The abortion-rights crowd has been
disorganized throughout the whole debate and has done little to stand
by him in the face of the anti-abortion fervor.
He quietly asks the pro-choicers to stage a rally on Saturday, in an
effort to shore up Senate support and help him avoid the embarrassment
of having his veto snubbed by the Legislature.
Jenkins gets wind of this rally and calls his own counter-rally. In
addition, telegrams begin streaming into Baton Rouge, asking senators to
override. The volume of mail is so great in fact that a Senate worker is
still sorting through them a day after the override debate ends in the
That Saturday, the battle lines are drawn in the chamber, and on the
steps of the State Capitol. Huge speakers are placed on the steps of the
capitol so the more than 1,000 anti-abortion supporters can hear the
debate. They immediately, and for the next three hours, chant "override"
-- a chant that can clearly be heard in the upper chamber.
A few feeble shouts of "sustain" can also be heard. Tastes great. Less
"Some of these women here really don't know anything," says Diana
Townsend, who is praying on the steps and casting aspersions on her
fellow man, or woman in this case. "Being a mother is what it's all
about. That's what the lord made women to do."
When an abortion-rights supporter holds up a sign that reads, "Support
Vasectomies," an abortion foe shouts, "Your father should have had
Inside, Ville Platte Sen. John Saunders is ripping the abortion-rights
"I haven't seen one sign outside that says 'Abortion,'" Saunders says.
A young woman in the balcony jumps up and screams, "Yes there is, yes
there is. I said it, I said it. Abortion when I want it." She is hauled
out by the troopers.
The Senate finally votes 23-16 -- three votes short -- on the override.
In the chamber, the 200 anti-abortion supporters sit in stunned silence,
while a sprinkling of pro-choicers scream their approval.
It's apparent that every senator has made up his mind and isn't going
to change, but they agree to let the pro-lifers have one more shot at
That night, Nunez is called out of a meeting for a phone call
purportedly from the Vatican. But after a few minutes, Nunez says it was
clear the call was not coming from the holy city. Finally, he asks the
female caller for a phone number where he could call her back. She gives
him a 504-area-code number.
The next day, Jenkins' legislative aide leaves pictures of aborted
fetuses on the desks of some of the "swing" votes, and the crowds are
back outside, although not in the same numbers as Saturday. On the front
steps, someone spray-paints the words, "Stop Killing the Innocent" on
the wall of the building.
The Senate blunders through a series of bills, even taking a break for
lunch, without again voting on the override.
During lunchtime, several women lay hands on the building, praying and
bobbing their heads. Other pro-lifers circle the building holding hands
and singing. A reporter from a northwest Louisiana Christian radio
"The walls of Jericho thing, you know," he says.
In the afternoon, most of the demonstrators are let in the rotunda area
after a blinding thunderstorm rips through the area. In the space of 10
minutes the rotunda is filled to overflowing with dripping and angry
people. The floor fills with half an inch of water, making movement on
the granite floor treacherous, so the dripping folks just stand still --
afraid of creating a wake.
At about the same time, Cross and Jenkins disappear to write a
concession speech. They don't have the votes and figure they shouldn't
embarrass the movement or themselves with another futile attempt to
Cross breaks the news to the Senate that he is not going to ask
for another override because he knows he doesn't have the 26 votes.
Copies of the Cross speech are distributed to the media. It contain
ellipses, the "..." favored by broadcasters when writing dramatic pauses
into their scripts.
Cross allows Shreveport Sen. Sydney Nelson to make a motion the
override question be tabled, a move approved by the upper chamber.
Almost everyone breathes a sigh of relief. For the lawmakers, it ends
almost three months of being called out of the chamber to face either a
confrontational, often scripture-laden lecture, or an in-your-face
question like, "Do you have the right to decide what the women of this
state can do with their bodies?"
VII: The Sacrifice of the Flag Burners
In the rotunda, Jenkins is standing on a receptionist's desk near the
front door, exhorting the folks down on Rotunda Lake by saying they are
within a vote of passage but they can't get that One Vote. Some members
of the upper chamber snicker at Jenkins' contention that he had found
"We will not give up!" Jenkins ironically shouts, not knowing what's
going on back in the Senate chamber.
Ville Platte Sen. John Saunders, confined to a wheelchair, rolls up to
the front of the chamber and knocks the Senate into stunned, jaw-hanging
He announces he wants the Senate to consider a bill by Dry Creek Rep.
James David Cain, which would lower the misdemeanor penalty for beat up
a flag desecrator to $25. But Saunders first wants the Senate to
consider an amendment -- the abortion bill that will be tacked onto the
"We'll sacrifice the flag-burner bill for the abortion bill," Saunders
tells the Senate.
There is an audible gasp in the chamber. Cross explodes out of his seat
shouting his objection, but Nunez decides the move is legal as long as
Saunders strips every bit of the flag-burner stuff out of the bill.
What's left of the bill is not the "Crime of Simple Battery" but the
"Crime of Simple Battery of Abortion." The Senate debates the amendment,
adds it to the bill, then approves it 32-7.
The House immediately takes up the bill, and after cutting off debate,
votes 83-22 and sends it back to Roemer.
Anti-abortionists are confused. There is a huge gap now between the
fundamentalists and protestants on one side and the Catholics, led by
Saunders, and New Orleans Sens. John Hainkel and Ben Bagert who
apparently have engineered the "triumph," on the other side.
The protestants say privately they've been sold down the road.
Jenkins even votes against passage of the bill, as all around him
lawmakers are building a new, compromised, moral high ground.
"It's more than half a loaf," says one pro-lifer, trying to snatch
victory out of the jaws of defeat. "It's more like three-quarters of a
A Republican representative walks out into the rotunda area, which is
filled with half-wet anti-abortionists, surveys the scene and shouts,
"At least now y'all will all go home!"
Roemer is given another anti-abortion bill, and has 20 days to do
something with it because the session is ending. If he vetos it, there
are rumblings the Legislature would come back to Baton Rouge in a
first-ever veto session to attempt to override.
VIII: Billy Guste Explains Birth Control
On the last night of the session, the steps are blissfully clear of
of demonstrators. The only folks out there are the reporters, who by
tradition toast the end of the session with drinks while standing on
the Louisiana step.
One reporter, half-wasted on Canadian whiskey, has taped printouts of
all his abortion copy over the last week end to end. It stretches 40
feet, cascading down from the Louisiana step.
He sets it on fire. It's an emotional moment.
Four days after adjournment, a group calling itself the Symbolic Art
Wing of Louisiana Choice holds a poorly attended performance
demonstration on the steps of the State Capitol.
It has something to do with lemons, which are nestled in a Radio Flyer
wagon. They hand some of the lemons -- apparently signifying the status
of the anti-abortion bill -- to reporters. The reporters have a field
day, pitching lemons back and forth. The performance artists drag their
wagon over to the governor's mansion, but either Roemer is not home
or in no mood for a symbolic performance on the wrongs of the
At first, sources in the governor's office say Roemer will simply let
the bill become law without his signature. That seems like the best idea
at the time because it allows Roemer to avoid the embarrassment of a
According to both factions, the bill is patently defective from the
Constitutionally, it is unclear whether it was even legal for the
Senate to graft the statute onto the flag-burner bill.
There's more. The bill indeed has a rape clause, but it requires the
woman to first report the rape to the police, then get an abortion
within seven days when most women would not even know if they are
pregnant. In addition, the bill apparently would not allow abortions in
the case of simple rape, generally defined as when a woman does not do
everything in her power to prevent the attack.
Then there's the IUD question.
The standard definition of the intrauterine device is that it works by
preventing the fertilized egg from attaching itself to the walls of the
uterus, so the devices theortetically would be banned under the new bill
which prohibits the use of any device to "terminate" a pregnancy.
"What's an IUD?" asks Attorney General William Guste when a reporter
questions him whether the device would be banned.
Guste says if that's the way they work, they'd be prohibited but "who's
going to report the crime? Who's going to know?"
A couple of weeks after the session ends, someone spray paints numerous
pro-choice slogans, such as, "Leave women's bodies alone" on the
capitol. State troopers are forced to work overtime, sitting out front
of the building at night protecting it from more grafitti.
As the deadline day draws near, Roemer has a change of heart. He says
he is influenced by his daughter and estranged wife, but a good bet is
he also was influenced by the battering Louisiana was getting in the
national press over the way the bill was created.
On Friday, July 27, Roemer puts pen to paper and vetos the bill.
The Legislature now has the chance to override, but in the Senate at
least, there isn't much sentiment for the move. A majority of the upper
chamber is against the override session, and votes against returning to
Baton Rouge Aug. 18 for the attempt. The abortion issue finally dies for
1990 in Louisiana.
EPILOGUE: Another Loaded Question
The British-sounding network reporter is confused on the phone.
The IUD business is bizarre, she says. But there is a bigger question
she asks the reporter at the other end of the line in Baton Rouge.
"How can you stand to live there?" she asks.
STEVEN WATSKY is capitol bureau manger for United Press International
in Baton Rouge. He is a contributor to the national magazine In These
Times, and frequently sluts himself on public affairs television and
radio programs in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.