Legislature poised to continue streak of passing bills restricting abortions

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Jordan Uhl, Flickr

A protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 about an abortion restrictions law passed in Texas.

The Mississippi Legislature is on the verge of passing a proposal to limit abortion rights for the third consecutive session.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed by a 33-11 margin a bill that supporters say is intended to prevent abortions from being performed based on race, gender or potential physical disabilities.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said the intent of the legislation is to ensure a fetus had the same civil rights as a person.

“They should have the same protection in the womb,” Fillingane said.

But others claim the purpose of the bill is to try to limit a woman’s right to an abortion. Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, offered an amendment that would have stripped out the language of the bill and inserted language proclaiming “a woman’s reproductive decisions shall be made by the woman, her family, her physician and her God.” That amendment was voted down by the Senate.

Reproductive rights groups point to the irony of civil rights and health protections claims driving abortion restrictions, noting the lack of sexual education programs and contraceptive care, and poor health outcomes like high rates of infant and maternal mortality.

The bill would require the physician to ask the woman if she was having the abortion because of the race, gender or genetic abnormality of the fetus. If the woman said she was, the physician would be prohibited from performing the abortion.

Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, expressed concern that the wording of the bill placed a requirement on the doctor “to confirm” the reason for the abortion. But Fillingane said the bill only requires the physician to ask the question and to fill out a form.

Medical organizations have repeatedly reiterated that the practice of medicine and states should not interfere with women’s reproductive rights, including the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s official abortion policy that says neither lawmakers nor providers’ personal feelings about abortion should be applied in a way that women could perceive as limiting choice. “The intervention of legislative bodies into medical decision-making is inappropriate, ill advised, and dangerous,” according to ACOG policy.

The bill, which originated in the House, now goes back to that chamber where it is expected to be approved again and sent to Gov. Tate Reeves, who most likely will sign it into law.

It would mark the third consecutive year and four of the past five years where the Legislature has passed bills restricting abortion. Most of those new laws have been blocked thus far by federal court rulings.

Last year the Legislature passed the so-called “heart beat” bill that prohibited abortions after six weeks and in the 2018 session a bill banning abortions after 15 weeks was passed. Federal court rulings prevented both of those bills from being enacted. They were challenged in court by abortion rights supporters who said the laws placed limits on abortions greater than those established by U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Mississippi’s law banning abortions after 15 weeks could be the first law of its kind in the nation to be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Abortion opponents hope the current Supreme Court will curtail existing abortion rights.

Lynn Fitch, who was sworn in as Mississippi attorney general in January, told Mississippi Today after the six-week ban was blocked by the 5th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals that she intends to appeal the 15-week decision to the Supreme Court. Monday, she did so saying in part, “The petition asks the Court to clarify its jurisprudence on abortion to allow states like ours to enact laws that further their legitimate interest in protecting maternal health, safeguarding unborn, and promoting respect for innocent and vulnerable life.”

Legal precedent dictates that states do have legitimate interests in restricting abortion, but that states cannot outright prohibit abortions before viability, nor require an “undue burden” on women seeking an abortion. Courts have said Mississippi’s law banning abortion after 15 weeks does not meet the viability standard. The state has argued that the law is not a ban, and that the “undue burden” standard should come into factor.

Earlier this year the Supreme Court heard Louisiana’s admitting privileges law that challenged the undue burden standard upheld in a 2016 Texas case. That decision will be the first major abortion ruling by the newly aligned court and will be closely watched.

In 2016, the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill requiring doctors performing abortions to have hospital admitting privileges. That law also was struck down, but other bills passed that year have been upheld.