Louisiana governor to sign ‘heartbeat’ ban, latest move to curb U.S. abortion rights

FILE PHOTO - Missouri Governor Mike Parson signs Bill 126 into law banning abortion beginning in the eighth week of pregnancy, alongside state House and Senate members and pro-life coalition leaders at his office in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S., May 24, 2019. Office of Governor Michael L. Parson/Handout via REUTERS.

By Gabriella Borter and Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – Louisiana’s Democratic governor said on Wednesday he would sign a bill passed earlier in the day to ban abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected, the latest legislation in a movement in mostly Southern and Midwest states to curb abortion rights.

Earlier on Wednesday, Missouri’s governor renewed his intention to close a Planned Parenthood clinic and become the first state without a medical facility that performs abortions.

The Louisiana bill was approved on Wednesday by a 79-23 vote of the Republican-controlled Louisiana House of Representatives and had already passed in the state Senate.

Louisiana would join at least four other conservative-leaning states that have passed measures this year to prohibit abortion as early as six weeks. Alabama has approved a stricter law that would ban nearly all abortions in the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court may eventually be called upon to rule on the various state laws, which challenge the high court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards would become the first Democrat this year to sign a ban on abortion when a heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks from conception before a woman realizes she is pregnant, lending bipartisanship to the measure. The bill’s sponsor, state Senator John Milkovich, is also a Democrat.

Other states that passed similar measures this year, including Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri, are led by Republican governors.

“As I prepare to sign this bill, I call on the overwhelming bipartisan majority of legislators who voted for it to join me in continuing to build a better Louisiana that cares for the least among us and provides more opportunity for everyone,” Edwards said in a statement on Wednesday.

The measure would allow a woman to have an abortion, after detection of an embryonic heartbeat, to prevent her death or if she risks serious injury.

The Louisiana legislation will not go into effect until a U.S. Appeals Court rules on whether to allow a similar measure in neighboring Mississippi to take effect. Last week, a U.S. district judge blocked the Mississippi law from taking effect, and the Appeals Court that is expected to review the ruling also has jurisdiction over Louisiana.

DECADES-LONG FIGHT

The Roe v. Wade decision allowed states to restrict abortion from the time a fetus can viably survive outside the womb, which the opinion placed at 24 to 28 weeks from conception.

Anti-abortion campaigners have sought to overturn the decision ever since, and they see an opportunity with the newly installed 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

While some states have sought to ban abortion at six weeks from conception, at least three states have passed measures this year to ban abortion starting at some point between eight weeks and 18 weeks.

The Louisiana House on Wednesday rejected a proposed amendment that would have allowed exceptions to the ban if a woman became pregnant during a rape or through incest.

Other states that have passed abortion restrictions this year also declined to make exceptions for rape and incest, drawing criticism from Trump, who supports such exceptions.

Abortion rights groups this year are challenging a number of state restrictions in court.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood obtained an injunction from a judge in March blocking Kentucky’s ban on abortions, which would apply as early as six weeks from conception.

On another front in the battle, Planned Parenthood sued the Missouri Department of health on Tuesday after the department told the state’s only abortion clinic it could not approve a license until it interviewed seven doctors that worked there.

The license for the clinic, which Planned Parenthood operates, is due to expire on Friday.

Missouri Governor Mike Parson, a Republican, on Wednesday, reiterated his intention to close the clinic for failing to meet state licensing standards.

Planned Parenthood said in a statement that Parson’s remarks were “not based on medicine, facts or reality,” and it will do “everything to ensure our patients get the best medical care available.”

Last week, Parson signed into law a measure banning abortion in Missouri after the eighth week of a woman’s pregnancy.

(Story was refiled to remove “Bel” from governor’s name in paragraph 8)

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Alex Dobuzinskis, Editing by Bill Tarrant and Grant McCool)

U.S. says Alabama state prisons ‘routinely’ fail to protect inmates from abuse

A U.S. flag and an Alabama State flag wave in the wind in Dauphin Island, Alabama, U.S., September 5, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday accused Alabama’s state prisons of regularly violating the constitutional rights of male inmates by failing to protect them from violence and sexual abuse.

In a letter to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, prosecutors and the country’s top civil rights law enforcement official said they had evidence the state was violating prisoners’ Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

“We have reasonable cause to believe that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in the Alabama’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions,” the letter said.

The review looked into prisons housing only male inmates.

The letter, which cited overcrowding and “serious deficiencies” in staffing levels and supervision, ordered the prison system to correct the problems within 49 days or the state could face a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The Justice Department said it also had the option of having U.S. Attorney General William Barr intervene in related private lawsuits against the state prison system.

The letter was signed by Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. attorneys for the southern, northern and middle districts of Alabama.

The investigation was first initiated in October 2016, at the tail end of the Obama administration, and before Jeff Sessions, who is from Alabama, became the attorney general under President Donald Trump in early 2017, the department said.

The Alabama governor acknowledged the Justice Department’s findings and said the state’s Department of Corrections had been actively working to fix the issues.

The department “has identified many of the same areas of concern that we have discussed publicly for some time,” Ivey said in a statement on her official website.

“Over the coming months, my administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety.”

The state’s Department of Corrections had been working to bolster the hiring and retention of correctional officers, to prevent prisoners from sneaking contraband into its facilities, and was replacing outdated prisons, the governor said.

The Justice Department said it preferred to resolve the issues with Alabama through a “more cooperative approach” in order to avoid litigation.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Judge strikes down Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge on Tuesday struck down a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, ruling that it “unequivocally” violates women’s constitutional rights.

The law, considered one of the most restrictive in the country, was passed in March. It had already been put on hold by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves after the state’s lone abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, immediately sued.

Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, states may not ban abortions before a fetus is viable, and the medical consensus is that viability typically begins between 23 and 24 weeks, Reeves wrote on Tuesday.

The judge acknowledged feeling “frustration” that Mississippi lawmakers passed the statute even though similar bans in other states have also been thrown out by federal courts.

“The real reason we are here is simple. The state chose to pass a law it knew was unconstitutional to endorse a decades-long campaign, fueled by national interest groups, to ask the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Reeves wrote, referring to the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that established a legal framework for abortion.

“This court follows the commands of the Supreme Court and the dictates of the United States Constitution, rather than the disingenuous calculations of the Mississippi Legislature,” he added.

Governor Phil Bryant was traveling and was not immediately available to comment, according to his office. The state attorney general’s office, which defended the law in court, did not immediately comment on the ruling.

The decision effectively invalidates a similar 15-week ban in Louisiana, which was set to take effect only if the Mississippi law survived a court challenge.

“Today’s decision should be a wake-up call for state lawmakers who are continuously trying to chip away at abortion access,” Nancy Northup, president, and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the abortion clinic, said in a statement.

Abortion rights advocates have warned that the Roe precedent could be vulnerable following the October confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is widely seen as an abortion foe.

Other states have sought to install severe restrictions in the hope of provoking a legal fight at the nation’s top court. The Republican-controlled Ohio House of Representatives last week approved a measure that would ban abortions at six weeks, while Iowa’s law banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected is tied up in a court battle.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)