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‘Pure gaslighting’: Federal judge strikes down Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks

The Jackson Women's Health Organization in Jackson, Miss., in 2012. It is now Mississippi’s sole abortion provider.
The Jackson Women's Health Organization in Jackson, Miss., in 2012. It is now Mississippi’s sole abortion provider. (Emily Le Coz/Reuters)

A federal judge struck down a Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks, one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, ruling Tuesday that the ban “unequivocally” infringes on the due-process rights of women.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, in Jackson, wrote a sharply worded rebuke of the law, calling it a deliberate attempt by the state to ask the newly conservative-majority Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a woman’s legal right to abortion.

At one point, he said the Mississippi legislature’s “professed interest in ‘women’s health’ is pure gaslighting.”

“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,” Reeves wrote in his ruling. “With the recent changes in the membership of the Supreme Court, it may be that the State believes divine providence covered the Capitol when it passed this legislation. Time will tell.”

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The state attorney general’s office had not issued any statements in response to the ruling. But Knox Graham, a spokesman for Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R), said in a statement Wednesday that the governor “fully supports the defense of this law moving forward.”

“Gov. Bryant has been committed to making Mississippi the safest place in America for an unborn child since taking office and is disappointed in Tuesday’s ruling against a law that protects both mother and child,” the statement read.

The state enacted the ban in March, prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks except for in the case of a medical emergency or “a severe fetal abnormality.”

In response, Mississippi’s sole abortion provider, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, immediately sued the state, asking for a temporary restraining order against the ban. The clinic would generally provide at least one abortion per week after 14 weeks and six days, according to the ruling. Reeves, who was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, temporarily halted enforcement of the ban in March and issued a permanent injunction Tuesday.

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The federal judge said the case hinged on the question of whether the 15-week mark of a pregnancy is before or after viability. He cited medical consensus that viability typically begins between 23 and 24 weeks and said there is “no legitimate state interest strong enough, before viability, to justify a ban on abortions.”

Mississippi is one of several states that already have a “trigger law” in place that would ban abortions if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned. Reeves expressed frustration that the state pursued the law after seeing numerous other states unsuccessfully litigate similar bans in court. The state, Reeves added, “is aware that this type of litigation costs the taxpayers a tremendous amount of money.”

In his conclusion, Reeves wrote about how he, as a man, could not imagine “the anxiety and turmoil” a woman might endure when deciding whether to get an abortion.

“The fact that men, myself included, are determining how women may choose to manage their reproductive health is a sad irony not lost on the Court,” Reeves wrote.

The judge’s ruling also blocks a similar 15-week ban passed in Louisiana this year, contingent on the outcome of the Mississippi law. The Louisiana law would have taken effect only if the federal court had upheld the Mississippi ban. The two laws would have marked the earliest abortion bans in the country.

When Bryant signed the bill into law in March, he said the state would be “saving more of the unborn than any state in America.”

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In a news conference last week, Bryant stood alongside Republican Senate candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith and defended her amid widespread criticism over a joke she made about “public hanging.” Bryant began the news conference by suggesting that black women were participating in “the genocide of 20 million African American children” through legal abortions.

Supporters of abortion rights, such as the Center for Reproductive Rights, which sued on behalf of the Mississippi abortion clinic, celebrated Tuesday’s ruling as a victory for women in the state.

“Today’s decision should be a wake-up call for state lawmakers who are continuously trying to chip away at abortion access,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “Such bans will not stand in a court of law.”