Fifth Circuit Strikes Down Mississippi’s 15-Week Abortion Ban

An abortion opponent sings to herself outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss., on Oct. 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Mississippi cannot enforce a law barring abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, the Fifth Circuit ruled Friday in a major setback to efforts by conservative-leaning states challenging abortion rights.

Mississippi, which already banned all abortions after 20 weeks, is one of nine states to recently pass laws restricting abortion, including Georgia, Louisiana and Kentucky, but legal challenges have blocked all of the bans from going into effect.

“States may regulate abortion procedures prior to viability so long as they do not impose an undue burden on the woman’s right, but they may not ban abortions,” U.S. Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote for the majority. “The law at issue is a ban.”

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant vowed to challenge the ruling at the nation’s highest court.

“We will sustain our efforts to fight for America’s unborn children,” the Republican governor wrote on Twitter. “Mississippi will continue this mission to the United States Supreme Court.”

Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state’s only abortion provider, sued Mississippi officials in April 2018 to block a set of laws that the group said were designed to cut off a woman’s constitutionally protected right to abortion care.

U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves, a Barack Obama appointee, struck down the state’s ban later that year, finding that the law violates women’s 14th Amendment right to due process. In his November 2018 ruling, Reeves ripped into the state for passing a law it knew was unconstitutional and for wasting taxpayer dollars defending it in court.

Making no exceptions for rape or incest, the bill outlawed abortions after 15 weeks of gestation and stated that doctors who violated 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.

Hillary Schneller, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which brought the federal lawsuit on behalf of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, said the Fifth Circuit recognized Mississippi’s abortion ban defies decades of Supreme Court precedent.

“With this ruling, Mississippi – and other states trying to put abortion out of reach – should finally get the message. Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars to defend multiple abortion bans that won’t stand up in court, they should be working on other issues – like addressing the state’s alarming maternal mortality rates,” Schneller said in a statement.

Higginbotham was joined on the Fifth Circuit panel by U.S. Circuit Judges James Dennis, a Bill Clinton appointee, and James Ho, appointed by President Donald Trump.

The ruling by the New Orleans-based appellate court was the first of the recent legal challenges to be decided by a federal court. Ohio, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas and Utah have also passed restrictive abortion bans.

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