Jason Williams, pictured on July 22, 2020, takes questions from reporters after qualifying to run for district attorney. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

The United States Supreme Court issued a decision on Friday that overturns the federally protected right to abortion, triggering a Louisiana law that criminalizes the procedure and mandates jail time for anyone who performs it. But with local leaders in New Orleans speaking out against the ruling, and a district attorney that has said he will not “shift priority” to prosecuting individuals for abortion, it is unclear to what degree the law will be enforced in the city.

In a statement, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell called the ruling “heartbreaking and dangerous.” 

“A half-century of women being able to access safe medical care who now find themselves at risk of bodily harm, and even death, as this ruling reopens the ‘Back Alley’ for business,” Cantrell said in a statement. 

The statement, however, did not provide any information as to how stringently the New Orleans Police Department would be directed to enforce the state law, which makes virtually all abortion — surgical or medication-based — a felony. 

A spokesperson for the city and NOPD did not respond to questions from The Lens as to whether or not they would be investigating abortions in the city or making arrests pursuant to the trigger law. 

Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams released a statement on Friday that called the Supreme Court decision “cruel and irresponsible,” and said his office would stay “focused on pursuing accountability for the most serious crimes committed in the community,” such as “murders, shootings, rapes, armed robberies, and carjackings.”

“It would not be wise or prudent to shift our priority from tackling senseless violence happening in our city to investigating the choices women make with regard to their own bodies,” Williams said. “The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn [Roe v. Wade] does not change that.”

While the statement from Williams does not explicitly say his office will never prosecute abortion providers under the law, New Orleans City Councilwoman Helena Moreno said on Twitter that she spoke to the DA on Friday and he had “once again committed to not prosecute patients or physicians in New Orleans.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, however, applauded the court’s decision, and said that his office would do “everything in our power to ensure the laws of Louisiana that have been passed to protect the unborn are enforceable, even if we have to go back to court.”

“As the chief legal officer for our State, I will continue defending Louisiana’s pro-life laws and working to ensure the health and safety of women and their babies.”

According to Louisiana law, Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office only has the authority to prosecute criminal cases if it has been invited to do so by the district attorney with local jurisdiction, or a judge has ruled that his office has cause to take over a case

In response to questions from The Lens, a spokesperson for the Louisiana State Police, Captain Nick Manale, said that the agency “continues to work closely with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to coordinate security protocols.”

Manale did not respond to questions regarding whether or not there would be specific units devoted to anti-abortion enforcement, but said that the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange — an intelligence and data sharing center between local, state, and federal law enforcement — “continually monitors potential security concerns” and “will be providing pertinent information to our public safety personnel to ensure safety for all communities.”

The Times-Picayune reported on Friday that New Orleans’ only abortion clinic closed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision. That clinic is only one of three in the entire state, along with a clinic in Baton Rouge and another in Shreveport. All three stopped scheduling new appointments this week, according to The Times-Picayune.

Trigger law

The Supreme Court decision means that states are free to place any restrictions, including outright prohibitions, on abortion. Louisiana is one of 13 states with so-called “trigger laws,” banning abortions in the event of such a decision, already on the books. And it’s one of three states — along with Kentucky and South Dakota — where trigger laws were set to take effect immediately.

However, it wasn’t clear as of Friday afternoon whether a portion of the law giving the state Department of Health the authority to close abortion clinics was already in effect. A statement from Gov. John Bel Edwards on Friday said his office was still reviewing the Supreme Court decision.

The Louisiana law, first passed in 2006 and signed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, outlaws both surgical and drug-induced abortions at all stages of pregnancy. The law provides no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, only allowing abortions in cases where the mother’s life is in danger or “to prevent the serious, permanent impairment of a life-sustaining organ of a pregnant woman.” The law provides, however, that healthcare providers “shall make reasonable medical efforts under the circumstances to preserve both the life of the mother and the life of her unborn child.”

Earlier this year, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 342, which clarifies the language in the 2006 trigger law, including language on potential penalties. That bill was signed into law this week by the governor, a vocally anti-abortion Catholic who has a track record of supporting legal restrictions on the procedure.

Under the law, anyone found guilty of performing an abortion — with or without the pregnant person’s consent — will face up to 10 years in prison. Those found guilty of performing late-term abortions, defined as taking place at 15 weeks of gestation or later, faces up to 15 years if convicted. 

The law only allows criminal prosecution against providers, but not people who have terminated their pregnancies. A bill proposed during the 2022 legislative session that would have allowed prosecutors to charge people who have received an abortion with homicide was shelved after pushback from anti-abortion groups in the state, who said criminalizing “abortion-vulnerable women” was too extreme

Edwards also signed a separate bill, Senate Bill 388, that outlaws telemedicine prescriptions and mailing of abortion-inducing drugs: a regimen of the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol. That bill takes effect on Aug. 1.

However, on Friday, President Joe Biden, who criticized the court’s decision, called state laws purporting to empower state and local officials to track people’s mail for abortion pills “extreme” and an invasion of privacy. He said he is directing the federal Department of Health and Human Services to take steps to ensure the medications are available “to the fullest extent possible.” 

Charles Maldonado contributed to this report.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...