Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, right, questions a committee member while vice chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, center, waits his turn to ask questions during a committee meeting at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Mississippi is one step closer to having the most restrictive abortion policy in the country.

On Tuesday, the Senate Public Health Committee passed a bill that would ban abortions in the state after a woman’s 15th week of pregnancy. Current Mississippi law restricts abortion after 20 weeks gestation. This bill essentially moves that timeline up by five weeks, according to Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, who presented the bill to the committee.

“The United States Supreme Court … has indicated that the state has a couple of interests when it comes to regulating abortion,” Fillingane said to Mississippi Today after the bill passed. “One is protecting the health and life of the mother. Another is protecting the potentiality of human life.”

This bill, like Mississippi’s current abortion law, makes some exceptions, allowing abortions after 15 weeks if the pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother or if a doctor diagnoses a severe fetal abnormality. Like current law, Mississippi’s 15-week ban does not make exceptions for victims of rape and incest.

In his presentation of the bill, Fillingane said women who had been raped or been the victims of incest rarely needed those protections.

“Of course you don’t need it in most of those cases when rape and incest are involved.  Those cases happen very quickly,” Fillingane said.

When asked to elaborate, Fillingane said he meant that these victims often sought abortions more quickly than people who became pregnant through consensual sex because “you know immediately that you have been the victim of rape or incest.”

But abortion rights advocates say the opposite is true.

“Those who have suffered at the hands of abusers may actually need additional grace,” said Felicia Brown Williams, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood Southeast, arguing that victims of rape and incest often take longer to report the incidents.

Fillingane said he had yet to see that evidence, but this dispute highlights the biggest concern abortion rights advocates have with the bill, that shortening the legal window for abortions would make abortion access next to impossible for many people in the state, particularly in Mississippi’s many rural areas. Mississippi currently has one clinic that provides abortions, and it in Jackson. The state also requires women to submit to a waiting period of at least 24 hours between their first appointment and the procedure.

“When you have a system where there are already restrictions based on having just one provider and you then decrease the amount of time when you have access, there is a substantive impact on the access that women coming from rural communities have,” Williams said.

Abortion policy exists in a sort of a limbo across the country, with recent court decisions gingerly straddling the line between preserving the life of viable fetuses and not overly restricting access for women who need the procedure. A handful of other states have also passed 20-week bans, but so far no state has approved a more restrictive policy. Abortion rights advocates have chosen not to challenge any of the 20 week bans in court.

Due to advances in medical technology, Fillingane says, 20 weeks is generally seen as the earliest point of viability for a fetus. In the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court held that abortion should be legal until a fetus was viable.

But Fillingane added that, while no fetus has survived outside the womb before 15 weeks, the possibility doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did.

“Abortion is one of the areas where technology is really driving the debate. Of course religion is important and driving it, too. But I think technology has pushed the timeline further and further (up),” Fillingane said.

Ron Matis, chairman of the Mississippi Advisory Council on Faith-based Initiatives, said he agreed with Fillingane’s assessment that science is now driving a debate that has long found some of its strongest support in communities of faith.

Ron Matis

“I’m glad to see the science community validating the thoughts that faith has on protecting human life,” Matis said.

If the ban passes in Mississippi, a legal challenge would be likely, Fillingane acknowledged, but he’s optimistic the law could withstand it.

“Assuming this bill were to become law, these challenges take two to three years to make their way up to the Supreme Court,” Fillingane said. “Who knows how far down the road technology would find us?”

Roll call was not taken after the vote, but the votes against the bill were a low murmur compared to those in favor of it. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves praised the committee’s action Tuesday in a release that implied he would support the bill on the Senate floor.

“I am committed to making Mississippi the safest place in America for an unborn child,” Reeves said, in an echo of Gov. Phil Bryant’s comments after the bill passed out of the House earlier this month.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.