The Senate passed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks, meaning Mississippi is almost one signature away from having the most restrictive abortion law in the country.

That signature belongs to Gov. Phil Bryant, who has consistently expressed interest in tightening Mississippi’s abortion laws. After Tuesday’s 35-14 vote for House Bill 1510 in the Senate, Bryant said he looked forward to signing the bill should it meet approval in the House of Representatives, where it’s currently headed for concurrence.

“As I have repeatedly said, I want Mississippi to be the safest place in America for an unborn child. House Bill 1510 will help us achieve that goal, and I look forward to signing it if and when the House concurs,” Bryant said.

Currently, no state in the country restricts abortion earlier than 20 weeks gestation. A precedent-setting piece of legislation such as House Bill 1510 likely faces a stiff legal challenge.

Those in favor of the bill said they’re prepared for it.

“I certainly feel very strongly about this legislation, and our attorney general has been following the bill very closely in anticipation of a challenge to it,” said Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, who presented the legislation to the Senate.

Attorney General Jim Hood said he fully expects that the state will be sued if the governor signs the bill into law.

“We know that bans below 20 weeks have been struck down,” said General Hood, a Democrat. “We expect an immediate and expensive legal challenge.”

If it is challenged, Mississippi may not be alone. Last week a member of the Louisiana House dropped a bill that would also restrict abortion after 15 weeks. Currently no action has been taken on that bill.

“If HB 1510 passes we can expect it to be a template for similar bans across the U.S.,” said Felicia Brown Williams of Planned Parenthood Southeast. “… Jackson Women’s Health Organization has already announced their plans to sue if HB 1510 passes. Ultimately, it will end up at the center of a lengthy and expensive legal battle, with Mississippi taxpayers footing the bill.”

The Senate version makes one big change from the bill that originated in the House, removing a provision that would have imposed criminal penalties on doctors who perform abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The doctors are still subject to professional censure and fines.

As a result of this change, the bill moves back to the House, which will either concur with the Senate’s changes or send the bill to conference. Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, who sponsored the bill, said even without the criminal provision, the bill still had his support.

“The fact that they removed the criminal penalties is not going to affect what we do with the bill when it comes back. I can still support it. I think the House can still support it,” Gipson said.

Although the bill passed by a wide margin, with all Republicans and a handful of Democrats voting in favor of it, the debate on the floor became contentious at several points as several senators pushed Fillingane on the question of fetal viability.

No fetus younger than 20 weeks gestation has survived outside the womb, and despite advances in technology, babies born before 22 weeks rarely survive. But Fillingane said several times on Tuesday that medical advances could one day make fetal viability possible as early as 15 weeks — a crucial point, if true, because under the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women should be able to obtain an abortion at least until the point of fetal viability.

Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, D-West Point, pushed back against the idea that 15 weeks was a potential point of viability.

“Are you aware of any cases where any fetus has been determined as viable at 15 weeks?” Turner asked.

Fillingane said he was not but that viability “is no longer the preeminent issue,” arguing that it was replaced by the question of “undue burden” in a 1992 Supreme Court case. This means that states are not allowed to pass any laws that place an undue burden on a woman’s right to have an abortion — up to the point of fetal viability.

Although Fillingane contended viability was not a preeminent issue, he said, “I think medical technology more than anything else is driving the shortening of the window (for) when these abortions would be considered allowed.”

If the bill passes and is challenged in court, these are likely to be central arguments.

Several senators, all of whom opposed the bill, offered a total of four amendments, though each failed to pass. One of the most contentious was offered by Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, requiring the state to pay for child care for any child whose mother did not get an abortion because of this law.

“”If the state of Mississippi is to intercede in family matters and family budgets, it is only fair that we provide the affected children and families with early childhood assistance,” Dawkins said.

The bill initially attracted some bipartisan support with Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, saying he would support the amendment if it were to include payment for child care for any mother who made an appointment for an abortion and then decided against it. Dawkins voiced support for this change, but Fillingane objected to the amendment, arguing that “it wasn’t germane” to the bill.

“Sen. Dawkins’s amendment deals with child care expenses and revenues coming out of the general fund and the bill has nothing to do with that. It only deals with moving 20 weeks up to 15 weeks. It has nothing to do with child care costs or anything that Sen. Dawkins is bringing up,” Fillingane said.

Senate counsel agreed and the amendment was not allowed. But at the end, Sen. Barbara Blackmon made another run at including child care, altering the amendment so that the bill would only take effect if a separate bill providing child care passed.

The Senate conferred for several minutes on this, but ultimately it was also thrown out for the same reasons.

Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville Credit: Mississippi Senate

Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, tried to amend the bill to include an exception for rape and incest. Although the bill and current state law offer exceptions for abortions after 15 weeks if the health or life of the mother and fetus are imperiled, neither offers an exception for victims of rape.

“In my opinion these are very complex decisions that women have to make and I personally believe those decisions have to be made between those women, their families and their doctors,” Simmons said. “But because we have to have legislative bodies making those decisions and those legislative bodies provide exceptions then I think we should use those exceptions to include an unfortunate occurrence like rape or incest. I think we’ll be supporting women.”

Simmons held the bill on a motion to reconsider.

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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.