Abortion-rights activists in Mississippi are troubled by the U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed a Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy to go into effect last week, but they are not surprised.
Now, they’re preparing for an upcoming Mississippi case that could put the United States in a post Roe v. Wade world.
“Mississippi, we are the testing grounds. I can’t believe Texas beat us to the punch on this one,” Derenda Hancock, co-founder of We Engage, a Jackson-based advocacy group that confronts anti-abortion protesters.
The Texas law is the most restrictive pre-viability ban — a law that prohibits access to abortion based on the amount of time pregnant before the fetus is viable, or around 24 weeks when it is able to live outside the womb — that has been allowed to star in effect post-Roe.
Mississippi’s fetal heartbeat law was blocked by an appellate court in 2019 due to it violating Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed pregnant people have a constitutional right to receive an abortion.
The Texas law is novel in that there were no defendants for abortion-rights groups to sue in attempts to block the law, as all state officials were prohibited from enforcing it. Instead, Texas deputized private citizens to enforce the ban, enabling them to sue an abortion provider who violated the law, or anyone involved in aiding or abetting someone in obtaining the procedure. Any successful case under the new law will net the plaintiff a $10,000 bounty and attorneys fees.
Though Texas groups hope to successfully challenge the law in state court, Mississippi groups are preparing for the law to be replicated here during the 2022 legislative session, where it would likely pass.
“We know that what starts in Texas doesn’t stop there, just as what starts in Mississippi impacts the nation,” the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition said in a statement. “Texas recycled this abortion ban from others and the individual enforcement mechanism here could easily spread to other states during future legislative sessions.”
Tyler Harden, Mississippi state director of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said that they’ve been preparing for this moment since Donald Trump was elected president, promising to appoint judges that would overturn Roe.
“We’re in a space where our legislature is just so hostile. We’re fighting abortion bans every year. And I think, because of that, we were able to be intuitive about where we’re headed,” Harden said.
Mississippi’s Legislature has already passed six- and 15-week abortion bans that were struck down by appellate courts. A 20-week ban is currently enshrined in state law, as it has not been challenged in court. The case before the Supreme Court will consider Mississippi’s 15 week ban, passed in 2018.
Advocates say they’re getting ready to work in a Mississippi where women not only lack access to safe abortions, but are jailed for getting the procedure.
“We anticipate that criminalization for people seeking out abortion will be something that we have to work with local prosecutors and local government to prevent to make sure that people are able to make the choices that they need from themselves,” Harden said.
Hancock said that simply overturning Roe won’t be enough for a large swath of anti-abortion activists in Mississippi. One side of the movement wants to work within the system, and is happy with the extent of the Texas law, she said. Another believes that life starts at conception and want to see abortion banned completely and harshly prosecuted.
The Mississippi case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear in the fall — Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — centers on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, passed by state lawmakers in 2018 and immediately blocked by lower federal courts. The case will provide one of the first reproductive rights cases argued before the Supreme Court since Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed in 2020. Many pundits believe that the 6-3 conservative majority will curtail access to abortion or overturn Roe entirely.
In the meantime, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state’s sole abortion clinic, is still providing abortions up to 16 weeks of pregnancy. Immediately after the Texas law went into effect, the clinic was inundated with calls from pregnant people in Texas, hoping to travel to the Magnolia State to seek an abortion.
“I’m sure we’ll have an influx of people from there, not that we can handle any more patients,” Hancock said. “They (JWHO) are booked, pretty much two weeks ahead.”
While time and the courts do not appear to be on their side, activists like Hancock are dedicated to doing the work they can until the clock runs out.
“We’re gonna just keep doing what we’re doing,” Hancock said. “We’re gonna keep fighting the stigma. That’s about all we’re capable of doing right now… As long as our clinic has their doors open, we’re going to be there.”