Legislators fiercely challenge abortion access

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Ron Sachs, Pool via CNP /MediaPunch/IPX

Some Mississippi legislators believe the election of President Donald J. Trump revitalizes their chances of getting anti-abortion legislation passed. Trump signed an Executive Order in the Oval Office on Jan. 23, 2017, which bans federal funding of abortions overseas.

Five new bills are challenging the legal right to abortion in Mississippi with a level of enthusiasm unseen in recent legislative sessions.

Three pieces of legislation revive the “heartbeat” bill that passed the House in 2013. These bills would outlaw abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically by six weeks gestation. Another bill would curb the use of public funds for abortion. And another would ban abortion outright, a move the Mississippi’s Legislature hasn’t attempted since 2011.

Each of this year’s five bills has until Monday at midnight to make it out of committee. All except for a funding bill authored by Sen. Michael Watson are double-referred, meaning they have to get the approval of two committees before the Senate or House can vote on them. So far, none of the bills has been taken up by a committee.

While opponents and proponents of the potential laws butt heads when it comes to the issue of abortion, many agree on the reason Republican legislators are tackling this issue with renewed vigor this session: the election of President Donald J. Trump and the potential he has to remake the Supreme Court.

Gil Ford PHotography

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune

“I felt compelled to file it with what’s going on nationally,” said Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, who is sponsoring one of the Senate’s two heartbeat bills. “With the anticipated Supreme Court vacancies, even if it got tied up in the courts for a few years, things could be different (by the time the bill makes it to the Supreme Court). I just like to be ahead of the game.”

The effects of President Trump’s election can be felt in federal abortion legislation, too. Last week, a Republican congressman proposed a bill to make the Hyde Amendment, a budget rider attached to individual bills since the 1970s, permanent. The Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortion or for health benefit plans that include abortion coverage.

Mississippi has similar legislation at the state level. Senate Bill 2170 would prohibit the use of any public funds for abortions, either directly or indirectly, such as reimbursing counselors who might advise women that abortion is an option.

Watson, R-Pascagoula, introduced the same bill last year. But he thinks the temperature of the Legislature could be changing this year.

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Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula

“What I’m saying is that these elected officials are starting to wake up; people are starting to pay attention to these issues,” Watson said. “The best part of (Donald Trump’s) presidency is it’s a shock to the system. People are waking up to the idea that life is important.”

But proponents of abortion access say they’re confident that these laws aren’t likely to make a dent in federal abortion legislation. They argue that this law is moot because existing federal laws already make these forms of reimbursement virtually impossible.

“This legislation is more about talking points and really throwing a bone to campaign donors than it’s substantive. Nobody is fooled,” said Felicia Brown-Williams, state director at Planned Parenthood Southeast.

In fact, Brown-Williams said these bills aren’t likely to affect federal abortion policy or get statewide support regardless of who the president is.

Felicia Brown-Williams

“I think Mississippi legislators should be less concerned about the future Supreme Court and more about doing right by their voters here … and the voters don’t want this,” Brown-Williams said.

The last time abortion legislation came to a vote was in 2011 with the Personhood Amendment, which would have amended the state constitution to define a fertilized egg as a person, effectively outlawing abortion in the state. It failed at the ballot, garnering 41 percent of the vote.

But Hill said times are changing, nationally and in Mississippi.

“I think with the debates and Vice President (Mike) Pence speaking out so strongly about the life issue, people are starting to pay attention to it who might not have taken the time to think before that a life is a life,” Hill said.

Whether this change is sufficient to give the bills enough momentum to pass remains to be seen. The three pieces of heartbeat legislation are very similar to a bill that passed the House in 2013, only to stall in the Senate. Watson describes the failure of that bill as a “shot to the heart.”

This year, however, Watson said he has gotten the impression that his Senate colleagues would back the legislation. Although ultimately, he said, Senate leadership will determine whether this bill goes farther than it did four years ago.

“Legislation lives and dies by what leadership wants. I’ve spoken to membership on this issue. But sometimes membership and leadership aren’t on the same page,” Watson said. “If leadership is pro life, where’s their support for this bill?”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves could not be reached for comment.

Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, who chairs Judiciary A, one of the two Senate committees that will need to approve the heartbeat legislation before it can hit the floor for a vote, said he has not had a chance to look at either Watson’s or Hill’s legislation, but he will soon.

“We’ll give it the same consideration we give the other (bills),” Tindell said.

Traditionally, Republicans in the Legislature have a strong record of working to curtail the federally protected right, with an average of four or five bills a year since 2010 restricting some aspect of abortion access. But many of the bills die in committee.

Last year, however, two became law. Senate Bill 2238 cuts off all Medicaid reimbursements to Planned Parenthood, even for non-abortion services. In October, a federal judge enjoined the law, determining that it unconstitutionally limits the right of women to choose their health care provider. Planned Parenthood does not provide abortions in Mississippi and is solely a women’s health care provider.

The second bill, the “Mississippi Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act” banned dilation and evacuation, also known as “D&E,” a second-trimester medical treatment. Still, the procedure is rare, even in states with few restrictions on it, and primarily used when the mother’s life is in danger.

For Hill, the Legislature’s willingness to start battles it’s not sure it can win shows a strong commitment to the pro-life cause. So if a bill does eventually topple Roe v. Wade, she said she hopes it comes from Mississippi.

“Mississippi’s the state that it should come from,” Hill said. “Mississippi is a state that values individual life. We have held steadfast in our state on this for a long time and we have not wavered.”

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Rep. Dan Eubanks, R-Walls

Rep. Dan Eubanks, R-Walls, said he began drafting his bill, which seeks to ban abortion outright in the state, this fall, before the presidential election.

“This has nothing to do with momentum,” Eubanks said. “If momentum comes along and the timing is right, then great. But this is about taking a stand for a whole class of people who can’t take a stand.”