The Jackson Women's Health Organization, the state's only remaining abortion clinic. Credit: Google Streetview

A House committee moved Mississippi toward having one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Judiciary B Committee passed HB 1510 — the Gestational Age Act — which would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation. Mississippi would be the first state to enact such a law, although other states are considering similar legislation.

The bill defines gestation as “the time that has elapsed since the first day of the woman’s last menstrual period,” although there is significant debate over establishing legal definitions related to abortion.

“It is medically proven that these abortions performed after the first trimester are extremely dangerous to the mother’s health in addition to the fact that it forces a very late abortion in the process,” said  Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, who chairs the Judiciary B committee.

Gipson, a pro-life Baptist pastor, did not cite medical research but noted that the Legislature passed a 20-week ban on abortions during the 2017 session with little controversy.

Felicia Brown-Williams, the Mississippi state director at Planned Parenthood Southeast, called the 15-week ban “unconstitutional.”

“At the end of the day, it’s bad policy,” Brown-Williams told Mississippi Today.

In June 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court settled a four-year battle over another Mississippi abortion bill. That year, the nation’s highest court ruled that the state could not implement a law that would have required doctors at freestanding abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Gipson said he believes the 15-week ban would pass constitutional muster.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that states have an interest in protecting human life and that standard will continued to be upheld,” Gipson said.

Diane Derzis, who owns the Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the state’s only abortion clinic — said her clinic, which does abortions up to 16 weeks, would be affected if the bill becomes law.

Under current state law, women must have a counseling session and wait 24 hours before having an abortion. Derzis said most abortions occur in the first 12 weeks, adding that women who have abortions later in their pregnancies do so for health, economic or other reasons.

“When you’re talking 15 or 16 weeks, these are women and girls who delay finding out they’re pregnant (or) don’t realize they missed a period. They’re lower income. That’s why it affects those who are least able to afford it the most,” she said.

The bill now heads to the House for consideration. The Senate Public Health Committee did not consider a companion bill before a Tuesday deadline.

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.