NEW ORLEANS — Planned Parenthood began construction here last year on a clinic that would perform abortions and provide other medical services for women. “High-Quality, Affordable Health Care for New Orleans,” a sign promised. “Seeing Patients Early 2015.”
That sign is now crumpled on the ground behind a chain-link fence at the project’s abandoned construction site, victim of efforts by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and other abortion opponents to block the clinic.
The push against the project began last year, when the Catholic archbishop of New Orleans wrote a public letter threatening to blacklist contractors on the clinic from any of the church’s numerous real estate projects. That led to several subcontractors walking away from the project, delaying work on the facility. An inspector for the State Licensing Board for Contractors also began making weekly visits, which one of the major contractors said was unprecedented.
Then last month Jindal’s administration denied Planned Parenthood an operating license, stating that the group failed to show the need for the clinic. Work has stopped at the site on a busy thoroughfare west of downtown, at least for now, while Planned Parenthood vows to appeal.
The clinic decision comes as Jindal prepares to launch a campaign for the White House in 2016, with a special emphasis on courting the Republican Party’s influential evangelical wing. Jindal, who was raised Hindu but converted to Catholicism, has staked out conservative positions on social issues ranging from same-sex marriage to prayer in the schools in an effort to become the preferred candidate of the Christian right.
Two weeks ago, Jindal hosted a day of prayer attended by several thousand believers on the campus of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and spoke at an adjoining antiabortion rally.
“It’s one more plank that he’s building his candidacy on,” said Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who is writing a biography of the governor. “The others include no tolerance for illegal immigrants, no new taxes, shrink the size of government and no gay marriage.”
For social conservatives, Cross added, “abortion is a signal issue.”
Jindal, who declined to comment last week, said in a statement earlier this year: “It matters how we treat the unborn and the elderly. Every life is sacred and we should have the courage to defend it.”
Jindal had a 100-percent voting record during three years as member of the U.S. House of Representatives, according to National Right to Life, an antiabortion group. He has also signed into law a series of measures that have tightened restrictions on abortions in Louisiana since he became governor in 2008.
Americans United for Life says Louisiana has been the most antiabortion state during Jindal’s tenure.
“He’s not just been pro-life behind closed doors,” said Benjamin Clapper, executive director of Louisiana Right to Life. “He’s also been proudly pro-life across our state.”
To be sure, it’s hard to imagine any Republican winning the party’s presidential nomination without condemning abortion. In 2012, white born-again Christians made up half of the voters in 19 Republican primaries and caucuses where exit polls were available. In 14 of the 19 contests, those voters favored former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the eventual party nominee.
The issue of abortion could play a particularly important role in Iowa, which hosts the first Republican contest in January 2016. Exit polling in 2012 showed abortion was the most important issue for 13 percent of Iowa Republican caucusgoers and for 6 percent and 8 percent of Republican primary voters, respectively, in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The presidential politics come against a backdrop in which the number of states that are “extremely hostile” to abortion rights has tripled from six in 2010 to 18 last year, reports the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank.
Here in New Orleans, the decision to deny the license to Planned Parenthood marks the first time that the state of Louisiana has attempted to keep an abortion clinic from opening, said Ellie Schilling, a New Orleans attorney who represents the Louisiana Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. Schilling said the Jindal administration also revoked licenses for two New Orleans abortion clinics over minor violations, although one of the decisions was reversed.
The administration is also proposing additional rules aimed at abortion clinics. “They are designed to close clinics under the guise of protecting women’s health,” said Jessie Nieblas, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Abortion Fund.
Antiabortion state legislators praise the governor but are quick to note that recent measures have come at their initiative and that he signed them afterward.
That’s the case with the major 2014 antiabortion bill that the state legislature overwhelmingly approved. Similar to a Texas measure approved in 2013, it requires physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic.
“It’s a women’s health issue,” said state Rep. Katrina Jackson, an African American Democrat from Monroe. “More African American babies are killed by abortion every year than from an unfortunate disease or any senseless criminal act.”
Jindal signed the measure into law at a Baptist church in West Monroe. The measure, Jindal said, provides “commonsense safety regulations to protect the lives and safety of pregnant women.”
The law has yet to take effect after a pro-choice group filed suit in federal court in Baton Rouge. The trial is scheduled to begin March 30.
In New Orleans, Planned Parenthood operates a small clinic that offers clinical breast exams, Pap smears and tests for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Dawn Laguens, the group’s executive vice president, said they decided to open a larger clinic that also performed abortions because of an “unmet need.”
In 2010, Louisiana had the sixth-highest rate of unintended pregnancies, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Before opening its $4 million clinic, Planned Parenthood had to undergo a “Facility Need Review” under a 2012 rule created by Jindal’s Department of Health and Hospitals. In its 74-page application, Planned Parenthood used statistical analysis to estimate that its entrance into the market would allow another 2,844 women to get abortions per year. In its rejection, the state agency’s top official said Planned Parenthood had failed to establish the need for another abortion facility.
Of the five that exist in Louisiana, one is in New Orleans and another is in the suburban city of Metairie.
“The safety and protection of women is not an issue of economic debate,” the governor’s press secretary, Mike Reed, said in an e-mail.
Planned Parenthood officials say the setback is temporary. “It will be built,” Laguens said.
Sylvia Cochran, administrator of the Women’s Health Care Center, the abortion clinic in New Orleans, said five to 10 protesters show up without fail every Friday.
Cochran said the Planned Parenthood denial “is just another roadblock to abortion in the state. The governor wants to be known as the most pro-life governor in the union.”
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.