Doesn’t it boil down to six is less than 15?”

That was the question U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves asked during a hearing this morning on Mississippi’s controversial six-week abortion ban, which the Legislature passed and Gov. Phil Bryant signed in March. The measure bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which often occurs as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Abortion-rights groups sued to block the law from taking effect, but the roots of Tuesday’s hearing in Jackson go back to last fall when Reeves, an Obama appointee, permanently blocked the state’s 15-week abortion ban passed during the 2018 legislative session. At that time he called it one of the most restrictive bans in the nation.

Attorneys for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is suing the state on behalf of the state’s only abortion clinic, claim that the six-week ban violates long-standing constitutional protections for abortion procedures. They also believe that Reeves’ ruling striking down the 15-week ban should apply to the new ban, set to take effect July 1.

“We’re asking the court to block the law before it takes effect on July 1 because it would essentially extinguish the right to abortion in this state,” said Hillary Schneller, a staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

In their argument, attorneys for the state argued the six-week law is not an outright ban because women can still receive an abortion if no heartbeat is detected.

Others beg to differ. Shannon Brewer is the clinic director of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only clinic in the state right now where women can legally receive an abortion. Brewer said very few abortions are performed on women who are less than six weeks pregnant.

“Not just our facility, but at most abortion facilities abortions are performed six weeks or later because of the fact that the average woman does not find out she’s pregnant until about two weeks after her missed cycle,” Brewer told reporters outside the courtroom. “I know that this is the reason the state did it, for that simple fact that they know that by the time a woman realizes that she’s pregnant then it’s too late for her to have that choice.”

During the proceedings Reeves asked multiple questions of both sides, but his main conclusion was simple.

“I can’t see how a six week limitation on a woman’s right to decide…how that survives in the face of the court that already struck (down) a 15 week ban,” Reeves said.

Reeves did not rule from the bench but told both parties he was aware of the law’s July 1 start date and that he expects to rule soon.

Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

About an hour later and a mile away, abortion rights supporters gathered outside the Mississippi State Capitol to speak out against the law.

“We are here to rally to stop the bans not just here in Mississippi but nationwide,” said Derenda Hancock, a member of the “Pink House Defenders” volunteer escort group at the women’s health organization.

Mississippi’s legal battles come on the heels of a wave of new abortion laws passed around the country in recent weeks. Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky and others have recently passed similar heartbeat laws; in Alabama, the Republican-led Legislature recently outlawed virtually all abortions.

Former Democratic state Sen. Gloria Williamson shared her personal experience with the crowd. In 1963, she said doctors told her there were problems with her pregnancy and she learned that the fetus she was carrying was dead, but wasn’t able to get a procedure to remove it. Eventually, she hemorrhaged and nearly died, she said.

“I was 19 years old and fixing to die,” Williamson said. “This is not just about illegal abortion. It’s about women getting pregnant that need help and if they go back to where (they were) in the 60s… there’s a lot of children and grandchildren that will die because of this.”

Near the end of the rally, an anti-abortion activist Coleman Boyd interrupted the event where he begged those in attendance to “have mercy on these babies.” After about five minutes of heated back and forth, he left.

Counter protester Coleman Boyd argues with abortion rights activists. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

At least two state lawmakers attended, Rep. Jarvis Dortch, D-Raymond and Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson.

“I need you to keep fighting, emailing and calling your representatives… but what I really need you to do is be angry and I need you to stay angry,” Hancock said. “Women’s lives are at stake.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.