Louisiana abortion battle closes 3 remaining clinics, for now

·5 min read

SHREVEPORT, La. — Hope Medical Group for Women has had to shut down and reopen several times since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two months ago, causing confusion and uncertainty among staff and patients.

As the legal battle over reproductive rights in Louisiana churns through the courts, the back-and-forth is having a profound effect on the clinic, one of three in the state, said director Kathaleen Pittman.

Hope Medical Group and the two other clinics — Women's Health Care Center in New Orleans and Delta Clinic of Baton Rouge — received cease-and-desist orders from the Louisiana Department of Health on Monday when a state appellate court lifted a preliminary injunction that had blocked the state’s abortion ban.

“We are no longer seeing patients. We are providing callers with websites that direct them to abortion care. We are continuing our legal challenge,” Pittman told NBC News in an email after the ban went into effect.

With a Louisiana temporary restraining order in place, the Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport continues to see patients, on July 6, 2022. (Ted Jackson / AP file)
With a Louisiana temporary restraining order in place, the Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport continues to see patients, on July 6, 2022. (Ted Jackson / AP file)

Pittman, who first joined Hope Medical Group 30 years ago and served as administrator since 2010, could not recall a time when the clinic did not have challenges before a court.

Over the last two decades, the conservative, largely anti-abortion state legislature enacted several measures into law, chipping away at abortion protections.

“We’re accustomed to being front and center when it comes to challenging these restrictions,” Pittman said, adding that the clinic had to beef up security after anti-abortion protestors showed up and some turned violent, with one man swinging a sledgehammer at the buildings windows and doors.

Louisiana's legal battle began days after the Supreme Court decision when Hope Medical Group and Medical Students for Choice filed a lawsuit arguing the state's so-called trigger law was “unconstitutional” and “vague.”

Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Robin Giarrusso granted the request for a temporary restraining order, which allowed providers to continue offering abortions.

While the restraining order was in effect, Hope Medical Group saw its waitlist for abortions grow to 500 patients, Pittman said. Appointments were scheduled a month out, but patients were told not to rely on them.

Pittman said she is concerned about what will happen to women in Louisiana if abortions are permanently prohibited.

“Louisiana already has a high maternal mortality rate; it’s going to go up,” she said. “And we’re going to see some women whose reproductive health is absolutely ruined because of their inability to obtain a safe, legal abortion.”

Louisiana exceeds the national average for maternal mortality, ranking 47th in the nation, according to the state Health Department. Its infant mortality rate is the fifth-highest in the nation, with those numbers even higher for Black babies.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to be a help to save all babies, but it is disproportionate, you know, in certain communities,” said Kim Banks, a lead coordinator for Louisiana Black Advocates for Life, an anti-abortion nonprofit working to reduce and eventually end abortions in the Black community.

Of the nearly 8,000 abortions that were done in the state last year, 65% were performed on Black women, according to the state Health Department.

Banks said more funding, expanded Medicaid and better communication about what resources are available to women, including crisis pregnancy centers, could help address some of the reproductive disparities.

Mary’s House Pregnancy Care Center in Shreveport.  (NBC News)
Mary’s House Pregnancy Care Center in Shreveport. (NBC News)

L’Anne Sciba, founder and director of Mary’s House Pregnancy Care Center, a faith-based center in Shreveport that supports women in crisis pregnancies, said she and her staff try to focus on early pregnancy care for women, "giving them education and guidance.”

She said the center provides patients, typically 15 to 29 years old and unmarried, with “options” on how to move forward with their pregnancies, including motherhood, adoption and abortion.

At least 35 crisis pregnancy centers operate in Louisiana, where women can get free ultrasounds and pregnancy tests, and access to prenatal care, adoption assistance, parenting education and post- abortion counseling.

The centers have come under criticism from abortion rights supporters who say they mislead women into making a particular decision.

Sciba denied such accusations.

“We never pressure them,” she said. “Of course, we don’t want them to get an abortion. We just say, 'here are your options.'”

Although some women may feel they have lost an option after the Supreme Court ruling, Sciba said, “Everything has sacrifice."

"And so if you take abortion off the table, it seems like ‘that’s not fair, I don’t have that choice,'" she said. "But you don’t have a choice for a lot of things because it’s not the best thing.”

Despite the latest blow, abortion rights advocates in Louisiana have not given up. The Center for Reproductive Rights joined Hope Medical Group this week in filing an emergency application asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to reinstate the temporary restraining order that blocked the state's ban on abortions.

“This legal pingpong is causing chaos for doctors trying to provide care in health care clinics and hospitals across Louisiana,” said Jenny Ma, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “It’s inhumane to have patients living in fear of whether they will be able to access reproductive health care.”

Louisiana's law metes out some of the harshest punishment in the country to those who perform or aid in abortions, with penalties that include up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000.

But Haley Brand, director of patient advocacy at Hope Medical Group, said she is not discouraged.

“I’m on this planet for reproductive justice, and whatever that looks like moving forward, I’m going to keep fighting,” she said.