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GOP governor signs law that bans abortion before some women even know they’re pregnant

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed a bill March 21 that would ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. (Video: Governor Phil Bryant)

Mississippi’s governor has signed into law one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, making it even more difficult for women to get abortions in a state where only one clinic still operates.

The bill, set to take effect in July, bans abortions after a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat during an ultrasound, unless the mother’s health is at extreme risk. Heartbeats can be found just six weeks into pregnancy — before some women even know they are pregnant.

Mississippi’s new restrictions are part of a reinvigorated nationwide effort to limit access to abortion, propelled by Republican-dominated state legislatures and an increasingly conservative Supreme Court. This year alone, at least 11 states have introduced “heartbeat bills,” including Texas, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Missouri — some of the country’s most populous states.

Kentucky’s governor signed a similar measure last week, which a federal judge quickly blocked, questioning its constitutionality. In January, an Iowa state court did the same to a 2018 law.

Right-wing and religious groups have said that they hope this rash of legislation will eventually force the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide, and that they will find a sympathetic audience in recently confirmed Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Even before Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed Mississippi’s bill, advocates were planning their legal challenge.

The Post’s Robert Barnes analyzes how states are passing laws restricting abortion rights and testing how the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority decides. (Video: Luis Velarde, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

“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, a staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York, said in a statement.

Schneller, the American Civil Liberties Union and the abortions rights group NARAL have called the law unconstitutional and reminiscent of another recent Mississippi measure banning abortions after 15 weeks. Last year, a federal judge declared that law unconstitutional.

“Lawmakers didn’t get the message,” Schneller said. “They are determined to rob Mississippians of the right to abortion.”

Bryant said he’s ready for the court battle.

“We will all answer to the good Lord one day,” Bryant said in a tweet. “I will say in this instance, ‘I fought for the lives of innocent babies, even under threat of legal action.’ ”

Mississippi’s legislature, where just under 14 percent of lawmakers are women, is the most male-dominated statehouse in the country. Both chambers passed the bill in a mostly party-line vote. In all, 99 men and 11 women supported it. Just one Republican, Rep. Missy McGee, voted against the bill.

“I cannot support legislation that makes such hard-line, final decisions for other women,” McGee, who considers herself “pro-life,” told the Clarion Ledger.

But David French, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, argued “it’s time to throw down the gauntlet” and abandon the strategy of limiting abortion rights through “incrementalism." Writing in the institute’s magazine, French said fetal heartbeat proposals represent the best opportunities to overturn the Roe decision and establish “an abortion-free zone in the United States of America.” One state senator said the bill made Mississippi “the most life-friendly State in the Nation.”

For Mississippi’s reproductive rights activists, however, the fetal heartbeat law is simply the latest offense to women in a state that already makes it extremely difficult to get abortions. Chief among these roadblocks: a severe shortage of clinics. For at least eight years, there has only been one.

That usually means a long wait list.

Then, when a woman actually gets an appointment, the state requires her to wait at least 24 hours for the procedure. During that time, she also needs state-mandated counseling and an ultrasound. If she’s under the age of 18, both her parents or a court must also consent.

“In short, it is already nearly impossible to get an abortion in Mississippi,” said Kelly Krause, a Center for Reproductive Rights spokeswoman. “And this law acts as an outright ban given all the other laws.”

On Twitter, a reporter at the Jackson Free Press, a local magazine, took stock of the state’s standing with a handful of health statistics: Mississippi has among the highest rates of infant and child mortality, he noted, along with some of the worst clinical care for its youngest residents.

“But,” reporter Ashton Pittman said, “we did pass some abortion bans.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this article said that heartbeats can be heard just six weeks after conception. Heartbeats usually can be found six weeks into gestation.

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