In Year of 'Unprecedented' Anti-Abortion Legislation, Another Heartbeat Bill Becomes Law

by | March 22, 2019 AT 12:19 PM

By Jenny Jarvie

Mississippi on Thursday became the latest state to sign into law a ban on most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually about six weeks into pregnancy, despite criticism from opponents who called the move cruel.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed Senate Bill 2116 at the state Capitol in Jackson less than a week after a similar ban was passed in Kentucky, forcing workers at that state's only abortion clinic to call patients to cancel appointments before the clinic's lawyers were able to temporarily block the law.

Two months ago, a state court struck down an abortion law in Iowa also based on when fetal heartbeats are detected.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents Mississippi's last remaining abortion clinic, Jackson Women's Health Organization, called the ban "cruel and unconstitutional" and vowed to challenge it in court before it becomes law on July 1.

"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," Hillary Schneller, staff attorney at the center, said in a statement.

The new six-week ban would prevent the vast majority of women from obtaining abortions, some health providers said.

"Most women don't find out they're pregnant until about six weeks," said Shannon Brewer, the clinic's director. "The point is to outlaw abortion."

Mississippi's new law offers few exceptions _ an abortion would be allowed if the pregnancy threatens a woman's life or would cause serious injury, but not in the case of incest or rape.

Hours before Bryant signed the law he took to Twitter to signal his support for the ban:

"We will all answer to the good Lord one day," Bryant tweeted. "I will say in this instance, 'I fought for the lives of innocent babies, even under the threat of legal action.'"

Since conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, Mississippi and other Republican-dominated states have passed a flurry of abortion restrictions in the hope that they can eventually overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

Last week, lawmakers in Ohio passed a ban similar to Mississippi's, and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has signaled he will sign it. A string of other states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, Texas and Florida, are also considering similar bans.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 297 state antiabortion bills have been introduced since the 2019 legislative session began.

"That's unprecedented," said Kelly Krause, a spokeswoman for the center.

Mississippi has been at the forefront of steadily chipping away at abortion rights, imposing a raft of hurdles to abortion access, such as requiring women to receive counseling that abortion providers say is biased and then wait 24 hours before returning to the facility to get the procedure.

Last year, Mississippi lawmakers passed what was then the nation's most restrictive abortion law _ a bill that would prohibit women from obtaining an abortion more than 15 weeks after their last menstrual cycle.

That law was struck down last November by a federal judge, who argued the law infringed on women's 14th Amendment rights to due process and defied existing Supreme Court precedents on abortion.

"The state chose to pass a law it knew was unconstitutional to endorse a decades-long campaign, fueled by national interest groups, to ask the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade," District Judge Carlton W. Reeves wrote in his ruling.

Reeves also dismissed Mississippi lawmakers' "professed interest in 'women's health'" as "pure gaslighting" and questioned why they sought to limit abortion rights while choosing "not to lift a finger to address the tragedies lurking on the other side of the delivery room: our alarming infant and maternal mortality rates."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mississippi has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, with 8.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2017.

"The ban's lawfulness hinges on a single question: whether the 15-week mark is before or after viability," Reeves added. "The record is clear: States may not ban abortions prior to viability; 15 weeks ... is prior to viability."

Reeves' ruling is being appealed.

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