In its nearly 40 years of existence, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast has never offered abortions in Louisiana. The state never authorized the organization’s two clinics — one in New Orleans and one in Baton Rouge — to do so.
Planned Parenthood began construction for its South Claiborne Avenue facility in 2015. Its first location, which opened in 1984 on Magazine Street, did not meet the legal code for a facility to provide abortions, so the organization decided to build a new clinic that did.
That aim never came to fruition, and the construction process itself was tumultuous. Anti-abortion advocates and the Archdiocese of New Orleans protested and threatened Planned Parenthood. The archbishop even published an open letter vowing “not to enter into business relationships with any person or organization that participates in actions that are essential to making this abortion facility a reality.”
After a controversial building period, the New Orleans Planned Parenthood clinic opened in 2016 and applied for a license under Gov. John Bel Edwards, an anti-abortion Democrat. Planned Parenthood said it heard no response.
“They never denied it, but they never gave us our license,” said Petrice Sams-Abiodun, the vice president of strategic partnerships at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion access in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, giving the states the authority to ban abortion. The decision overturned a longstanding national right to abortion established in the 1972 Roe v. Wade decision.
The decision allowed Louisiana’s “trigger law” banning nearly all abortions to take effect immediately, making New Orleans Planned Parenthood’s push for a license to perform abortions moot.
Before Roe, Louisiana was already an ‘abortion desert’
In the 40 years between the Roe and Dobbs decisions, Louisiana lawmakers had passed 89 restrictions to abortion access, more than any other state. In 2006, the state legislature passed the trigger ban that would ultimately go into effect with the court ruling 16 years later. The state also instituted a policy banning Medicaid providers from offering abortions, a law that Sams-Abiodun described as “a catch-22,” since almost 70 percent of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast patients receive Medicaid.
There are currently zero abortion clinics operating in Louisiana after the Dobbs decision. But the number had already been dwindling for decades. In 1992, there were 17 clinics. Then, there were 11, then five, then three.
“We have always looked to the national government. We’ve always looked to Roe in Louisiana to be a buffer for us, so that we could have access, even though it was very limited,” Sams-Abiodun said. “And when that fell, we didn’t have anything else.”
With three abortion clinics in Louisiana prior to the Dobbs ruling, the state was already an “abortion desert,” but Planned Parenthood could connect patients seeking the procedure to a facility in the state. After the ruling, they expanded an initiative that they had started in Texas to also help people get care outside of Louisiana.
“We have staff that are specially trained to look at, ‘How far along is the pregnancy? Do you need travel support? Do you want to take a flight? Do you want to drive?’” Sam-Abiodun said. “All these barriers, now, with these laws, are put on the individual.”
By working with the Planned Parenthood national office and the Louisiana Coalition for Reproductive Freedom — an umbrella organization with 30 partners — Sams-Abiodun said Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast has helped more than 1,500 Louisianians and Texans access out-of-state abortion care. In the 10 months following the Dobbs decision, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast has provided more than $650,000 in direct assistance for travel-related costs, such as airfare, lodging, and childcare. “But how many other people needed those services?” Sams-Abiodun asked.
The national landscape
Louisiana is now one of 13 states where nearly all abortions are banned. The state has one of the toughest bans in the country. Some states, such as Georgia and West Virginia, have enacted bans that include exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest. Louisiana’s law only allows exceptions when a pregnant person’s life or health may be at risk — a standard that doctors have said is vague. The state’s list of conditions that warrant an exception, doctors have complained, fails to reflect the range of health presentations that a person with a nonviable pregnancy might have.
An additional four states ban abortion at 15 weeks or earlier, with Georgia banning the procedure at six weeks. These new restrictions had an immediate impact on the number of abortions nationwide. According to a national report released on June 15, there were 25,640 fewer abortions after the Dobbs decision when compared to a pre-Dobbs period.
Notably, the surge of abortions in less restrictive states did not account for the reduction in states where the procedure is banned. In Louisiana, there were an average of 785 abortions a month in the two months before Dobbs. From August 2022 through March 2023, the number of abortions in the state has dropped to near zero per month.
People of color, low-income communities more vulnerable
In the past year, New Orleans-based reproductive justice advocacy groups have been increasing their efforts to promote abortion rights, particularly for the most marginalized groups.
“Before Dobbs, we had already been doing this same work, especially Black women in the South had always been doing … this same exact work,” said Elyse Degree, reproductive justice engagement coordinator at Women with a Vision, a nonprofit with programs on reproductive justice, harm reduction, STD prevention, and sex worker advocacy. Now, the organization is striving to “amp up visibility” through outreach and programming, including their “Survival Guide to a Post-Roe Louisiana” and weekly library visits with pregnancy tests, emergency contraception, and sexual health resources.
The Louisiana Abortion Fund, meanwhile, has spent the past year connecting more than 2,000 callers across 27 states and paying for the travel, clinic, and other associated fees for 1249 people. Their average round-trip to receive an abortion was 891 miles.
More than 90 percent of their callers lived in Southern states where abortion is banned, and more than 75 percent of their callers were Black. The demographics of the Louisiana Abortion Fund callers reflect statewide and national trends when it comes to abortion, which disproportionately affects Black women and other women of color.
“I definitely don’t want to downplay the significance of the Dobbs decision, but those intersecting difficulties have already been oppressing our people, have already been impacting people’s ability to make a choice for their reproductive health and reproductive futures,” said Tyler Barbarin, director of grants and development at the Louisiana Abortion Fund.
Last summer, Baton Rouge resident Nancy Davis garnered national attention when she was denied an abortion in Louisiana after learning that the fetus she was carrying had acrania, a fatal condition in which the fetus develops without a skull. Planned Parenthood and a New York abortion fund ultimately covered her procedure and expenses — outside support that Davis said she needed.
“Thank God for a strong support system, because if it wasn’t for that, I would not have been able to do it,” she said. “We have three kids that we have to care for and look after, so you know we didn’t have those resources. That was one of the reasons I came out for help. In a sense, it was a cry for help.”
Acrania was added to the list of medical exceptions to the Louisiana abortion ban earlier this year, but doctors continue to complain that the law creates confusion when treating pregnancy complications and miscarriages. Providing an abortion that does not adhere to the ban’s specific exceptions holds penalties of up to 20 years in jail and fines of $200,000.
Advocates push for legislation
Lift Louisiana, an advocacy organization that promotes state policy change, pushed for a bill that the group’s executive director Michelle Erenberg said would have made a “modest change to the language in the law” and addressed doctors’ confusion over when they can perform a procedure “technically considered an abortion.”
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mary DuBuisson, R-Slidell, was rejected by the state House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee in May. Prior to the Dobbs decision, legislative staff sent abortion-related bills to the House Health and Welfare Committee. But since the overturning of Roe and the outlawing of abortions, these bills have gone to the criminal justice committee, due to abortions being outlawed. This committee is composed of some of the state’s most conservative representatives.
“We weren’t able to get a fair hearing on that legislation. It was all sent to a committee that really has no expertise in these medical issues,” Erenberg said.
Still, she said that Lift Louisiana is not going to stop their legal fight. The organization plans to bring back the bill in the next legislative session, as well as another recently defeated bill that sought to make exceptions to the abortion ban for cases of rape and incest. In addition to pushing legislation, Erenberg noted that they’re also monitoring trends in other states, adding that if “Louisiana isn’t the first one, it’s usually close to follow some of these bad, bad ideas.”
The recently defeated bills do not seem to align with public opinion on abortion. According to a recent LSU survey, 77 percent of Louisiana residents believe that abortion should be legal for victims of rape. The Pew Research Center found a rise in support for abortion access in states where bans have taken effect. “People may consider themselves pro-life but they do strongly support having more exceptions to the law,” Erenberg said.
Despite the ongoing efforts of local reproductive justice organizations, Erenberg said that the onslaught of work is not sustainable. Sams-Abiodun echoed that sentiment while stressing the importance of a network of these groups.
“The services are complementary because the need is so great,” she said. “One organization can’t do this alone. We need the Louisiana Abortion Fund, we need what Lift is doing, we need what Planned Parenthood is doing. And even with that, it’s still very difficult to get done.”
For Barbarin, now is the time to increase these advocacy efforts. “We’re trying to break down systems and address root causes, but also just love on our people,” she said. In many ways, this work is committing “to not abandoning the South.”
“This is the moment that you need to double down on your commitment and your care for the South,” she said. “We invite people to continue to do this with us, like even past the one-year mark, even past the five-year mark, we’ll still be here.”
Clarification: The story has been updated to make clear that an initiative designed to help people get care outside of Louisiana after the Dobbs decision was an expansion of a program that had started in Texas before the ruling.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Elyse Degree as data coordinator at Women with a Vision. She is the reproductive justice engagement coordinator with the organization. The story has been updated.
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