Federal Judge Lashes Mississippi, Striking Abortion Law

(CN) — A federal judge Tuesday struck down Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of gestation, blasting the state for passing a law it “knew was unconstitutional” and wasting taxpayer dollars defending it in court.

Governor Phil Bryant said as he signed House Bill 1510 on March 19: “We are saving more of the unborn than any state in America. And we’ll probably be sued here in about a half hour … and that will be fine with me; it’s worth fighting over.”

The Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only abortion provider in the state, and its staffer Dr. Sacheen Carr-Ellis, took up Bryant’s challenge within weeks.

The clinic, represented by The Center for Reproductive Rights, brought a federal lawsuit in April, claiming the law was a continuation of Mississippi’s 25-year campaign to undo the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

Making no exceptions for rape or incest, the bill outlawed abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy and stated that doctors who flouted it would have their medical license suspended or revoked, and face potential fines and civil penalties.

The only exceptions were for abortions needed to save the mother’s life, or if she was at risk of serious injury, or if the fetus had a severe abnormality.

But U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves, a Barack Obama appointee, found that the law violates women’s 14th Amendment right to due process.

Even the Mississippi Department of Health — the lead defendant — agrees that a 15-week-old fetus has “no chance of survival outside the womb,” Reeves wrote.

The Jackson Women’s Health Organization performs abortions up until fetuses are 16 weeks old.

“The record is clear: States may not ban abortions prior to viability; 15 weeks lmp is prior to viability; and plaintiffs provide abortion services to Mississippi residents after 15 weeks lmp. As the facts establish, the Act is unlawful,” Reeves wrote, abbreviating last menstrual period.

Doctors date pregnancies from the first day of the woman’s last menstrual cycle.

Mississippi claimed HB 1510 was only a regulation that did not unduly burden women’s right to choose because it included exceptions and furthered the state interest in protecting the health of women.

But Reeves, who blocked the restrictions in April with a temporary injunction he extended several times and made permanent Tuesday, found that argument had already failed in the Eighth Circuit.

“In Edwards v. Beck, the State of Arkansas, attempting to defend a ban on abortions after 12 weeks, made the exact same argument as the State of Mississippi does here,” he wrote. “The Eighth Circuit rejected the argument and held that ‘(w)hether or not exceptions are made for particular circumstances, a state may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy before viability.’”

Rhetorically asking “Why are we here?” in the 17-page order, given that Mississippi had no chance of prevailing in the litigation, Reeves wrote the state might be anticipating the Supreme Court’s new conservative jurists, President Donald Trump’s appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, will push the court to revisit Roe v. Wade.

“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,” Reeves wrote.

“If overturning Roe is the State’s desired result, the State will have to seek that relief from a higher court. For now, the United States Supreme Court has spoken,” he added.

The Center for Reproductive Rights said in a statement that Reeves’ order also dooms a nearly identical 15-week ban on abortions Louisiana passed in May, which included a caveat that it would take effect only if Mississippi’s law were approved by a federal court.

“Our victory today means that women in Mississippi will maintain the ability to make their own decisions about whether and when to terminate a pregnancy. Today’s decision should be a wake-up call for state lawmakers who are continuously trying to chip away at abortion access. Such bans will not stand in a court of law,” said Nancy Northup, the nonprofit’s CEO.

West Virginia and Alabama voters on Nov. 6 approved amendments that placed anti-abortion language into their states’ constitutions — changes critics say have primed the states to ban abortions should Roe v. Wade be overturned.

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