Mississippi’s heartbeat abortion ban one of nearly 300 anti-abortion bills nationwide

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Governor Phil Bryant said if the bill he signed into law Thursday is struck down, he plans to appeal ruling to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Mississippi is once again the most difficult place in the country for a woman to get an abortion, this time in a year in which state lawmakers have introduced “an unprecedented number” of anti-abortion bills nationwide.

On Thursday, Gov. Phil Bryant signed Senate Bill 2116 into law. The bill makes it illegal for doctors to perform an abortion once the embryo’s heartbeat can be detected, often as early as six weeks. For six hours last year, after Gov. Bryant signed a 15-week abortion ban into law, Mississippi had the country’s strictest abortion law. That night a federal judge stayed the ban and later struck it down.

But the legislative momentum of that 15-week ban and more restrictive bans in states like Ohio and Iowa, along with a more conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court, emboldened lawmakers this year, the law’s opponents and advocates told Mississippi Today. So far this year, state lawmakers across the country have introduced 297 bills aimed at restricting  access to abortions.

“I think all sides—the left, right and center—believe there has been a pivotal change on the court and a lot of observers believe this is the most conservative Supreme Court since the 1930s,” said Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, who defended both last year’s bill and this year’s bill on the Senate floor.

“I think Mississippi is a model, with the passage of our 15-week ban and this year with the governor signing the heartbeat bill. … We kind of got first swing at the ball here, but I have confidence that many states will (follow).”

Bryant, however, framed the push from conservative lawmakers in Mississippi to pass this legislation as a simple question of morality.

“I think every year we’ve become more determined to protect the unborn life,” Bryant told reporters after signing the bill Thursday. “We should all take to the streets and protest every time an innocent life is taken in this nation, and we seem to somehow to shrug our shoulders and expect that it’s going to go on without challenge. We in the pro-life community are going to challenge it each and every day, every chance we get.”

The Center for Reproductive rights, which sued Mississippi over last year’s 15-week ban as well as a collection of other abortion restrictions the state has passed over the years, told Mississippi Today on Thursday that it plans to file another federal lawsuit over the constitutionality of this year’s six-week ban.

“This ban is one of the most restrictive abortion bans signed into law, and we will take Mississippi to court to make sure it never takes effect,” said Hillary Schneller, staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “A judge struck down the state’s 15-week ban just months ago, but lawmakers didn’t get the message. They are determined to rob Mississippians of the right to abortion, and they are doing it at the expense of women’s health and taxpayer money. This ban—just like the 15 week ban the governor signed a year ago—is cruel and clearly unconstitutional.”

U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves blocked last year’s 15-week abortion ban in November, saying the ban was unconstitutional and calling it “one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.”

Mississippi’s six-week ban is likely to face a similar fate at district court level. Only three states have signed bills banning abortion as early as six weeks into law. A federal appeals court blocked North Dakota’s 6-week ban 2015. And the Iowa Supreme Court struck down that state’s six week ban earlier this year. Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court judge temporarily blocked Kentucky’s six-week ban, saying that letting the law stand while awaiting his ruling could cause “irreparable harm.”

Opponents of the law frequently point out the expense of defending a bill currently deemed unconstitutional. A Mississippi Today analysis in December determined that the cost of these lawsuits could ultimately soar to as much as one million dollars.

But Bryant said he’s undeterred by the steep price tag.

“Those of us who believe in life often wonder what kind of price you can put on the life of an unborn child,” Bryant said, referring to the law’s supporters.

Should a federal judge strike down the bill, Bryant said he plans to appeal it to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And Mississippi’s law is likely to find itself in good company, at the appeals court level. In addition to Kentucky and Mississippi, this year 12 other state legislatures are set to vote on their own six-week bans.