Laura Santhanam | PBS Newshour | March 9, 2018
Mississippi could soon ban abortion after 15 weeks of gestation, the earliest of any state nationwide.
Critics say the new law, which Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to sign, could set up a Supreme Court showdown over the 40-year-old landmark Roe v. Wade case that gave women in the United States the legal right to have abortions.
State Senators passed HB 1510, also known as the Gestational Age Act, on Tuesday, followed by state house representatives two days later. It’s now sitting on the governor’s desk. With his signature, the law would go into effect immediately.
Along with shortening the window in which a woman can seek to have an abortion, the law also says a person found guilty of performing an abortion after 15 weeks of gestation will face a felony conviction and up to 10 years in prison and could have their medical license suspended or revoked. Prior to the new law, Mississippi banned abortion after 18 weeks of gestation.
“As I have repeatedly said, I want Mississippi to be the safest place in America for an unborn child,” said Bryant, a staunch conservative who in 2016 championed a state law that allows small businesses and state employees to deny services to LGBTQ individuals based on “strongly held religious beliefs.” The law, he added in a written statement, “will help us achieve that goal.”
Mississippi, home to 2.9 million people, has one abortion clinic — Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in the state capital. Right now, it serves roughly 2,000 women each year, and offers abortions up to 16.5 weeks of gestation. Nine out of 10 abortions take place during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, said Dr. Willie Parker, a physician who since 2012 has provided abortion procedures at the clinic.
In such a rural state, Parker said, it can be difficult for women to travel to Jackson, especially if they have limited means of transportation. If under this law, a woman waits until 15 weeks and one day, Parker said she’ll likely seek abortions elsewhere, which means she’ll have to travel further, wait longer and “take risks she doesn’t have to take.”
“You take women in a desperate situation and make their situation more desperate,” he said.
Reproductive rights advocates say that this law targets that clinic and its staff and will “chip away at abortion rights, one ban at a time,” said Shivana Jorawar, state legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
In May 2017, half of U.S. adults said abortion should remain legal under certain circumstances, and an additional 29 percent said it should always be legal, according to a Gallup poll. And another 18 percent of Americans said it should never be legal.
Nearly 400 abortion bans have been enacted nationwide in the last seven years, said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health policy organization.
The Trump administration has supported these efforts, particularly through remarks from Vice President Mike Pence, who has long championed anti-abortion legislation as a congressman and former governor of Indiana. Pence said during the 2017 March for Life that he would work with Congress to “end taxpayer funding of abortion and of abortion providers, and we will devote those resources to healthcare services for women across America.” Several weeks ago, he reiterated that message, saying anti-abortion advocates can work to end access to the procedure “in our time.”
Mississippi has a consistently conservative record on abortion rights, but there have been exceptions. One emerged in 2011 when Mississippi voters rejected the personhood amendment to the state constitution. If passed, this amendment would have legally recognized a fetus as a person from the moment of conception. People raised concerns about unintended consequences for this amendment if passed. For example, oncologists worried they could face charges if they administered chemotherapy to pregnant women diagnosed with cancer.
Mississippi’s ban at 15 weeks is the earliest in effect, but attempts to pass an even shorter window have been passed elsewhere. In 2013, North Dakota state legislators passed and the governor signed a six-week ban on abortions, saying that was the point at which fetal heartbeat is detected. That same year, lawmakers in Arkansas banned abortions after 12 weeks. Federal courts later overturned both bans.
But North Dakota’s ban wasn’t a total loss, Nash said.
“By even putting forth that kind of legislation and getting attention, it makes every other abortion restriction seem moderate,” she said, adding that several states have passed 20-week bans on abortion.
Kim Ketola sees this debate differently. Ketola, the conservative Christian radio host of the national program “Cradle My Heart,” who said she had an abortion when she was younger, believes courts and lawmakers have been asking the wrong question.
She points to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, that fetal viability should be what determines when an abortion is appropriate. Instead, she said human life starts at conception, so abortion is an issue of social justice.
“Each life has value,” she said, and that’s the point from which the debate should begin.
She said anti-abortion advocates such as herself look forward to the “changing of the character of the Supreme Court” as seats may open for more conservative justices who could reset reproductive rights in this country.
In Mississippi, Jorawar and Nash said they expect the law to be challenged.
Until then, Parker said, “we serve women. They’re not targeting us. They’re targeting women.”