The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This state’s abortion ban ‘smacks of defiance,' says federal judge who shot down earlier attempt

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)
Placeholder while article actions load

When a federal judge declared Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban unconstitutional — and called the restrictions ‘pure gaslighting’ — he may have thought the matter settled. Yet only months later, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves again summoned harsh words for a state that had just passed an even more restrictive ban on abortion.

“It sure smacks of defiance to this court,” Reeves said at a Tuesday hearing.

And defiance may be the point.

Mississippi’s law, which bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, is part of a nationwide barrage of restrictions, pushed for by the religious right and meant to challenge the Constitution and force the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling in Roe v. Wade. In most cases, the goal is not a law’s enaction, but the legal challenges and appeals that could pave a path to the high court and its conservative majority.

From his bench in Jackson, Reeves weighed whether he’d allow Mississippi’s ban to stand, listening to arguments from the state attorney general’s office in its defense and from lawyers for the state’s only abortion clinic, which sued to block the law. Reeves said he would decide soon — before the law is set to take effect on July 1 — but didn’t give an exact date.

“These are not hard cases for courts to decide given how blatantly unconstitutional they are,” said Hillary Schneller, a staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

It was six months ago to the day that Reeves struck down the state’s 15-week ban, writing that it openly flouted federal legal precedent. But shortly after, another bill began to wend its way through the Mississippi Legislature, one that would ban abortions even sooner — before some women even know they’re pregnant.

That legislation, also known as a “heartbeat bill,” prohibits abortions after an ultrasound can detect electric activity from what will become a fetus’s heart, a milestone that could come just six weeks into a pregnancy. The bill sped through the statehouse, and Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed it in March.

Antiabortion ‘heartbeat’ bills are illegal. Why do Republicans keep passing them?

At the time, Bryant was the year’s second GOP executive to approve such a measure. But in the months since, governors in Georgia and Ohio have signed their own six-week bans into law. And last week Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed the country’s most restrictive abortion ban yet, which would effectively outlaw the procedure in the state.

“Other states are following Mississippi with heartbeat bills,” Bryant said in a tweet this week. “A new national movement has begun.”

However, none of the bans has taken effect, and each one has faced vigorous legal push back from abortion rights groups.

In March, a federal judge in Kentucky blocked a similar six-week measure soon after Gov. Matt Bevin (R) signed it. The judge questioned the law’s constitutionality. In January, an Iowa state court did the same to a 2018 law.

But for Schneller, Reeves need look no further than his November ruling that struck down Mississippi’s 15-week ban and chastised the “disingenuous calculations of the Mississippi Legislature.”

“If a 15-week ban is unconstitutional, of course a six-week ban is unconstitutional,” Schneller said in an interview. “It’s just more extreme."

Reeves himself appeared to agree, asking, “Doesn’t it boil down to: Six is less than 15?”

Paul Barnes, Mississippi’s special assistant attorney general, told Reeves that the state believes abortion prohibitions are constitutional once a doctor has detected the pulsing of an embryo’s forming heart. He added that the state disagrees with Reeves on the 15-week ban, as well, and is appealing his ruling.

The hearing was another chapter in a years-long battle between groups opposing and pushing for abortion rights in Mississippi, one of the leaders in limiting access to abortions. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican running for governor, has made the issue a key part of his campaign.

“Abortion is evil,” he said at an event on Tuesday, following the hearing, the Clarion Ledger reported. “It is a moral issue. It is good versus evil; it is right versus wrong.”

The widening gap in abortion laws in this country

As he spoke, abortion rights supporters converged at rallies across the country — including in Jackson, just a mile from the federal courthouse — to protest the “all-out assault on abortion access.”

In Washington, a demonstration near the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court drew hundreds, including a handful of Democratic presidential candidates.

“They are criminalizing reproductive decisions by women; they are criminalizing our doctors and our caregivers,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) said through a bullhorn. “They are criminalizing the most intimate, fundamental decisions that we as women, as mothers, have a right to make.”

She said President Trump and his Republican allies had begun a nationwide “war on women.” The president, meanwhile, has called himself “strongly Pro-Life” and has also used the issue as a rallying cry to his Republican base.

“We must stick together and Win for Life in 2020," Trump said in a series of tweets on Saturday. “If we are foolish and do not stay UNITED as one, all of our hard fought gains for Life can, and will, rapidly disappear!”

Over the past two decades, abortion rights have divided the country along familiar lines, as states on the coast have passed more protections and lawmakers across the South and the Midwest have pushed for more restrictions. In Missouri and South Carolina, two more restrictive bills are on the verge of becoming law. The states’ governors, both Republicans, have said they would sign the bills.