Most restrictive abortion bill in the country awaits governor’s signature

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Mississippi is one signature away from having the most restrictive abortion bill in the country.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Gov. Phil Bryant

On Thursday, the House of Representatives agreed to send its abortion bill, House Bill 1510, to Gov. Phil Bryant for a signature. The bill, which would ban abortions after 15 weeks, is a precedent setting ban, more restrictive by five weeks than any other in the country.

After the bill passed the Senate on Tuesday, the governor said he was looking forward to signing it.

“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 should the House concur,” Bryant said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

The House did concur just two days later by a decisive vote of 75 to 34. But what will become of the law if it is enacted remains unknown. Currently, no state in the country restricts abortion earlier than 20 weeks gestation, so a precedent-setting piece of legislation such as like House Bill 1510 likely faces a stiff legal challenge.

Diane Derzis, owner of the Jackson Women’s Health Clinic, said her attorneys will likely take legal action as soon as the law takes effect. Derzis’ clinic took a case against a measure passed in 2012 to the U.S. Supreme Court; that legislation, which the courts struck down, would have required freestanding abortion clinics to have a relationship with a local hospital.  Derzis said passage what abortion-rights activists call TRAP, or targeted regulations of a abortion provider, laws place undue economic burdens on lower-income women and their families.

“These TRAP laws have forced women to make two trips to Jackson to have a simple medical procedure done. They have to take off work, find gas money,” she said. “It’s a tough place if you’re poor, (a) woman of color or family of color. It affects you.”

But several Republican leaders have said the state is just as ready to defend the bill, should it become law.

“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,” Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said on Tuesday after the Senate passed the legislation.

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 Hood, a Democrat. “We expect an immediate and expensive legal challenge.”

“If HB 1510 passes we can expect it to be a template for similar bans across the U.S.,” Felicia Brown Williams of Planned Parenthood Southeast said on Tuesday.

The reason 20 weeks has been the cut-off for abortions nationwide is that 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.

Fillingane did not offer evidence, however, that technology was close to reaching this point.

Although the bill passed the House by a wide margin on Thursday, several Democrats echoed the concerns of Derzis of the Jackson Women’s Health Clinic, arguing that the bill unfairly targets a population of women who are already disadvantaged, without significant benefit.

Women who seek abortions after 16 weeks are significantly more likely to be under age 18, black, unemployed and poor, according to a 2010 study from the Human Family Research Center.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, argues against passage of House Bill 1510 in House chambers at the Capitol in Jackson.

“(This bill) does nothing to help the mother who has the unwanted pregnancy. You’re not putting any money into social programs that will help her out,” said Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson.

“What is this body going to do when these children get here? Is this body going to take this baby into their own house?” Wooten asked.

On Tuesday, Sen. Deborah Dixon, D-Pass Christian, had introduced two amendments that would have provided free child care and free health care for women who could not receive abortions after 15 weeks, but they failed to come up for a vote because Senate counsel ruled they were not germane to the bill.

Since he first presented the bill on the House floor in February, Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, has maintained that the bill is necessary to protect the health of the woman receiving the abortion.

Gipson cited statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, a group that advocates for a woman’s right to have an abortion, arguing that serious health risks for the mother increase substantially when abortions are performed after 18 weeks. According to the institute, the risk increases from 0.3 deaths per 100,000 abortions performed before eight weeks to 6.7  deaths per 100,000 abortions performed after 18 weeks.

But several Democrats pushed back against this, arguing that women, and not the state, should be allowed to make those decisions.

Democrats also pointed out the lack of an exception in the bill for victims of rape or incest. Like current state law, House Bill 1510 only includes an exception for an abortion after 15 weeks if the life or health of the mother is in jeopardy or in the case of severe fetal abnormalities. The discretion of what this entails is left up to the woman’s health care provider.

Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, who has worked as a rape counselor, argued that because of the trauma and shame associated with rape and incest, victims of these acts often take longer to come to terms with their pregnancy than women who become pregnant through consensual sex.

“That the number of individuals who are raped tend not to say anything until several years later,” Hines said.

Gipson countered, as he has several times in the past, that at 15 weeks the life of the fetus takes priority.

“But at 15 weeks you have someone in the womb who is moving and breathing,” Gipson said.

Contributing: R.L. Nave