Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed the most restrictive abortion ban in the US on Monday, drawing outrage and promises of lawsuits from abortion rights advocacy groups.
The bill, called “The Gestational Age Act,” bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, just after the beginning of the second trimester. The law contains exceptions to the ban in cases of fetal abnormalities and medical emergencies, including a threat to the woman’s life or serious risk of physical impairment, but not in cases of rape or incest.
When the bill was up for a vote, Bryant tweeted his support, saying, “As I have repeatedly said, I want Mississippi to be the safest place in America for an unborn child.”
Before this bill, Mississippi already had a ban on abortion after 20 weeks, which 16 other states do as well. While other states have passed even more restrictive bans through their legislatures — like Ohio, which passed a six-week ban on abortion in 2016 — none have successfully become law.
"We are protecting more women, we are protecting more children," Mississippi House Judiciary Committee Chair Andy Gipson told CBS News. "By 15 weeks, you have a child in the womb who has a heartbeat, who for all practical purposes has taken on the form of a person."
Organizations like the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union were quick to make clear they planned to challenge the law in court. There it could be blocked temporarily as the groups and the state litigate its constitutionality.
“It will end up at the center of a legal battle, wasting tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in legal fees,” the ACLU of Mississippi said in a statement Wednesday, after the bill passed the state Senate and was sent back to the House. “Mississippi can’t afford to use your precious dollars in that way.”
Senior vice president of the Center for Reproductive Rights Lourdes Rivera called the bill “dangerous and unconstitutional” and said that her organization “is prepared to answer any attempt to undermine 40 years of Supreme Court precedent with the full force of the law."
For many anti–abortion rights advocates and lawmakers, the hope in passing a bill that they know will be challenged in court is that it will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court, where it may have a chance of chipping away at nationwide abortion laws.
The “Gestational Age Act” is unusual not only in that it bans abortion so early in pregnancy, but also in the reasoning for that time period. Laws imposing 20-week bans usually reference the disputed idea that a fetus can start to feel pain after 20 weeks of gestation. But Mississippi’s new bill is less specific: It cites moral opposition to the method of abortion frequently used in the second trimester of pregnancy (dilation and evacuation), and claims that abortions after 15 weeks have a greater chance of causing harm to the pregnant woman.
“[The] legislature finds that the intentional commitment of [dilation and evacuation abortions] for nontherapeutic or elective reasons is a barbaric practice, dangerous for the maternal patient, and demeaning to the medical profession,” the bill reads.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control released in November, only about 8% of the abortions performed after 14 weeks between 2005 and 2014 occurred after 14 weeks. A 2009 Columbia University study of abortion procedures used by National Abortion Federation members found that the rate of medical complication for an abortion increases 38% for each additional week of gestation beyond 8 weeks.
Mississippi has long had some of the most strict abortion laws in the country. The state has a “trigger law,” which would immediately make abortion entirely illegal in the state should Roe v. Wade (the constitutional decision that made abortion legal in the US) be overturned. The state also requires women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound and wait 24 hours between that and having the procedure.
Jackson Women’s Health Organization is the only abortion clinic left in the state. Even before this ban was in place, the clinic didn’t provide abortions after 16 weeks of pregnancy, making the passage of this law largely symbolic.