Louisiana legislators advance bill classifying abortion as homicide

FILE PHOTO: Students and others protest for abortion rights in New York City

By Gabriella Borter and Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) - Louisiana lawmakers have advanced a bill that would abolish abortion in the state, grant constitutional rights to "all unborn children from the moment of fertilization" and classify abortion as a homicide crime.

The move on Wednesday came two days after a leaked draft ruling showed the U.S. Supreme Court poised to overturn the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The court's final ruling is expected in June.

The Louisiana bill is one of a raft of proposals by lawmakers in conservative states to restrict access to abortion and a sign of Republicans feeling emboldened by the leaked draft opinion. Such restrictions could go further than the so-called trigger laws, bans and other regulations that will take effect in some 26 states should Roe be overturned.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, this week said she would call for a special legislative session if Roe is overturned to limit abortion to the greatest extent possible. Lawmakers in Nebraska and Indiana also said their states should convene special sessions to consider limiting abortion rights.

The conservative actions come as supporters of abortion rights are moving to expand and protect abortion access in more liberal states, including plans to ask voters in California and Vermont to enshrine abortion rights in their constitutions.

Louisiana state Representative Danny McCormick, a Republican who introduced the "Abolition of Abortion Act" legislation in March, said the impending ruling from the nation's high court should not delay the state's efforts to ban abortion access.

"We cannot wait on the Supreme Court," McCormick said in a hearing on Wednesday.

The legislation, approved in a 7-2 committee vote, now moves to the state's full House of Representatives for consideration.

The bill amends the state's existing homicide law and states its purpose is to "ensure the right to life and equal protection of the laws to all unborn children from the moment of fertilization by protecting them by the same laws protecting other human beings."

It appears to permit the prosecution of anyone who has an abortion or performs an abortion on homicide charges, opponents of the bill said.

"What this bill does is to specifically amend the crime of homicide and the crime of criminal battery to enable the state to charge people, including the pregnant person - the pregnant mother - at any stage of gestation," Ellie Schilling, a Louisiana lawyer who represents reproductive health care providers, said during Wednesday's committee hearing.

The bill's text says the state should enforce the law "without regard to the opinions and judgments of the Supreme Court of the United States" on abortion, which Schilling said "would completely annihilate" the Supreme Court's overriding authority.

ACLU of Louisiana advocacy director Chris Kaiser said the measure also would criminalize in vitro fertilization and various forms of birth control by defining a fertilized egg before implantation as a person. In a statement on Thursday, he called the bill "barbaric."

Louisiana is one of 13 states with a trigger law that would allow the state to immediately ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Brian Gunter, a Louisiana pastor who worked on the bill with McCormick, said in Wednesday's hearing that the trigger law was "woefully insufficient" to prevent abortions in the state because it didn't carry harsh enough criminal penalties for violations.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Diane Craft)