BATON ROUGE — Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer on Friday vetoed the nation's most restrictive abortion bill, saying the measure was insensitive to the rights of rape victims.
The veto was a major setback to anti-abortion activists who had hoped the bill might lead to a test of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
Roemer, who describes himself as "pro-life," said the bill "does not meet even the minimum standards set by me long ago." And he went on to criticize the state legislators who rushed the anti-abortion bill through by grafting it to another that banned flag burning.
The bill would have prohibited abortions except to save the life of the mother, and in cases of aggravated rape and incest reported to police and a physician no more than a week after they occured. Doctors who performed illegal abortions could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $100,000.
The veto marked yet another chapter in this state's highly-charged controversy over the abortion issue. Earlier in the legislative session Roemer had vetoed an even tougher bill that would have allowed an abortion only to save the life of the mother. An attempted override failed by only three votes.
And it also marked the second time this year that anti-abortion forces have been thwarted by a Democratic governor they had long considered an ally. In March, Gov. Cecil D. Andrus of Idaho vetoed anti-abortion legislation that also presented a direct challenge to Roe vs. Wade.
"In both cases, we've had a betrayal by a governor who has been on the record as pro-life," said Burke Balch, the state legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, the nation's largest anti-abortion organization.
Anti-abortion legislators in Louisiana said that they would attempt to call a special session Aug. 18 to attempt a veto override, and might even attempt to revive the first, tougher bill. But the majority of both houses must agree by mail to such a meeting, and no special session to override a veto has ever been held in the state.
"I think he's (the governor) trying to play all sides and I think politically it will catch up with him," said State Sen. Mike Cross, a leader of the anti-abortion contingent in the Legislature. "He's playing wishy-washy with the people of this state."
Those who favor legal abortion were elated with the veto. "There's an old saying that says oppression against men is a tragedy, oppression against women is a tradition," said Terri Bartletti, the executive director of Planned Parenthood in Louisiana. "By the governor's veto today he is saying that he is tired of that tradition and that he is ready for a new one for the men and women of Louisiana."
But Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, noted that with the recent retirement of liberal Supreme Court justice William J. Brennan Jr., "the right to choose is really hanging by a very fragile thread. We won this particular skirmish, but it's a very long war."
Since the Supreme Court indicated last year that it is willing to allow states more leeway in restricting abortion, 350 bills proposing new abortion limits have been introduced in 41 state legislatures, she said.
At a press conference, Roemer said his office had been deluged with thousands of letters and telephone calls, and that "neither extreme served their case well."
Despite protests to the contrary by anti-abortion legislators, Roemer said he was asking no more than he did five months ago when he outlined what kind of a bill he would sign.
He said, among other things, that a seven-day period for reporting a rape was unreasonable and that the bill did not take "simple rape" into account at all, defined as situations where a woman is incapable of resisting, such as when she is drunk or drugged or mentally incapacitated.
"Forcing a rape victim to report to law enforcement officials and seek medical treatment, all within seven days of a crime, is an onerous burden," he said. "Under this bill, sheer trauma or ignorance would force a woman to bear and give birth to a child conceived in brutality."
Roemer also said the vetoed bill was too vague and did not answer such questions as who, besides the doctor, might be held liable if an abortion is performed. The liability could be interpreted to include relatives who, for instance, paid for the operation, he said.
Roemer said that he came to his decision after paying more attention to what women were telling him.
"They deserve to be listened to," said Roemer. "This (Legislature) did not listen at all." Only three of the 144 state legislators are women.
Even if the anti-abortion bill had passed into law, both sides agree that it could have taken years to reach the Supreme Court.
In previous cases, the court has upheld relatively modest restrictions on abortion, but it has stopped short of overturning Roe vs. Wade.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has urged restraint until the court has been presented with a case where "the constitutional validity of a state's abortion statute actually turns on the constitutional validity" of Roe vs. Wade.
Abortion opponents conceded that, with Roemer's veto Friday, no such case appears on the horizon unless there is an override by the Legislature later in the summer.
Kennedy reported from Baton Rouge and Tumulty from New York. Free-lance writer Garry Boulard also contributed to this story from Baton Rouge.