After New Orleans officials declared they wouldn’t comply with the state’s restrictive abortion ban, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry made it clear that the city could lose funding needed to complete a life-saving project if it continued to resist the ban.
Louisiana’s near-total abortion ban went into effect in July, less than a month after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The Human Life Protection Act is a 2006 trigger law designed to take away a pregnant person’s right to end their pregnancy in the event that Roe was reversed.
New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams said he would not prosecute anyone seeking or providing an abortion. The city council also adopted a resolution to not use any of the city’s money or resources to enforce the ban.
City officials’ open opposition to the law is why Landry wanted to block funding for a project that will help pump flood water out of the city, making it safer and more livable. While the Louisiana Bond Commission ultimately approved the project’s funding, Landry’s threat may not be an isolated incident in the post-Roe era. With water crises rising in other cities around the country, including Jackson, Mississippi, it is difficult to understate the threat to New Orleans without this funding.
The project began when then-mayor Mitch Landrieu hired Paul Rainwater in 2017 to help strengthen the city’s power system.
They planned to create a more up-to-date version of the city’s existing power plants in addition to its levee system. Although the levee system is functional, some of the city’s suburbs still flooded during Hurricane Ida in 2021. The new power plants would be able to pump flood water out of the city.
This is important, Rainwater said, because even minor weather events can flood the entire city.
According to Rainwater, the state government promised $38 million for the project. Had state officials complied with Landry’s request to withhold the rest of the project’s money because of New Orleans’ officials resistance to the abortion ban, the project would go unfinished and all of the money spent so far would have been wasted.
Rainwater said at issue was the state’s desire to enforce the laws against abortion as well as Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s opposition to the decision.
Rainwater believes the work on the city’s infrastructure should not be affected by the battle over abortion rights, as they are two unrelated issues. He said any events hosted in New Orleans depend on the city’s ability to pump out flood water.
“The project is extremely important to everything that happens in the city, whether it’s Saints football, or the Pelicans basketball game—all of those things are connected,” Rainwater said. “That power plant and the sewage and water board provides a basic service water sewer. It powers the 200 pumps that take water out of the city when the city gets a heavy rain.”
Not a unique situation
Randall A. Lake, an associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California, studies both social movements related to abortion rights and environmentalism.
He said threatening to withhold something necessary to enforce a law—even if it’s entirely unrelated—is not abnormal. He said there are “all kinds of ways” lawmakers will do something like this to get what they want.
“I would say this kind of thing is not at all uncommon because the legislature that wanted to outlaw abortion fundamentally is just using its power to retaliate against opponents, and they’re using flood aid as the mechanism to retaliate because they know that flood aid is very important to the city of New Orleans,” Lake said. “So the larger pattern here is just, ‘We’re gonna get what we want, and we’re gonna punish you if you stand in our way.’”
Other cities could suffer if they defy their state’s abortion laws—and if the state governments don’t prioritize residents’ needs.
Jackson, a historically progressive city in a conservative-run state that also has issues with flooding, also needs a new water system. Fixing the system would cost at least $47 million—Mississippi gave the city $3 million to fix it. The state claimed it cannot allow Jackson to take up all of the state’s resources; the Associated Press reported that Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves helped block funding for Jackson’s water system.
“Ultimately it is not just a Jackson problem,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told NPR. “It is a state of Mississippi problem.”
Birmingham, Alabama, a predominantly Black city in a red state, has attempted to create a law to raise minimum wage citywide. The state in turn passed a law requiring one minimum wage in Alabama. The city appealed a lawsuit in response.
“Politicians in Montgomery have tried to strip the working people of Birmingham of their vote and their voice, but we won’t give up the fight,” Scott Douglas of Greater Birmingham Ministries said in a statement, according to U.S. News & World Report.
There’s also Austin, Texas, which voted to decriminalize abortion after Roe v. Wade was overturned. Prior to the overturn, Gov. Greg Abbott had signed into law that abortion would be illegal in Texas (and SB 8 also bans abortion at six weeks’ gestation, before most people know they’re pregnant). Abbott had said in 2017 that he believes cities should not be able to self-regulate, which is what New Orleans has tried to do in 2022.
“If cities try to put bans like this in place whether it be on fracking or some other thing, I think cities should have to pay the price for it,” he said.
‘Gambling with people’s lives’
Luu Ireland, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the threat to withhold flood aid is “gambling with people’s lives” in a multitude of ways.
“Withholding funding and preventing people from being able to resume their work and their livelihood to have access to clean water and food—that is more of a threat to health than anything right now,” Ireland told Rewire News Group. “And the idea that folks at the state level are playing with people’s lives, or using people’s lives as a political bargaining chip or political blackmail, is really, really horrifying.”
A lack of clean water endangers both pregnant people and fetuses.
“Nothing can be more harmful to pregnant people in New Orleans right now than not having access to clean water and safe housing and the ability to earn an income,” Ireland said. “The impact in this political fight is not going to be short-lived, and it’s going to impact generations to come.”
If a pregnant person were to ingest unclean water, the risks could be fatal. Cholera, a bacterial disease found in water, can lead to the loss of a fetus, a premature delivery and/or a stillbirth. It can even lead to the pregnant person’s death.
Ireland and her colleagues are no strangers to the unpreventable issues that can affect a pregnancy. Significant bleeding and premature water breakage, she said, are grounds for an abortion procedure the pregnant person’s life, especially as an OB-GYN operating under the Hippocratic oath.
Since she currently works in Massachusetts, where abortion is legal, Ireland can still provide abortions. But she sympathizes with physicians in states that have outlawed abortions, such as Louisiana.
“I cannot imagine being a physician who has a critically ill patient in front of me, having the skill set and the medical expertise to make them better, and not being able to do it because of a law that tied my hands,” Ireland said.
Ireland pointed out that Black and brown people are affected by health-care issues disproportionately. New Orleans is 59.2 percent Black, and 32 percent of the city’s Black households live in poverty according to data from the Data Center, meaning its residents could face severe pregnancy complications in addition to the problems posed by the lack of abortion access.
“Those who don’t have the means to travel out of state, who don’t have the means to arrange child care, time off work, to go to a place where they can access safe and legal abortion care—the folks who are most vulnerable continue to be hardest hit by all of these issues,” Ireland said.