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Country’s harshest anti-abortion law signed in Mississippi

Published time: April 23, 2014 23:14
Anti-abortion demonstrators protest as they walk past the US Supreme Court.(AFP Photo / Saul Loeb )

Anti-abortion demonstrators protest as they walk past the US Supreme Court.(AFP Photo / Saul Loeb )

One of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the country will go into effect in Mississippi this summer, barring women from seeking an abortion 20 weeks after the beginning of their last menstrual cycle.

The bill, signed into law by Gov Phil Bryant on Wednesday and going into effect July 1, calculates conception from the first day of a woman’s last period rather than when the egg becomes fertilized and implanted in the uterus.

The controversial new legislation does not contain exceptions for cases of rape or incest. It does, however, have exceptions for the life of the mother or if the fetus has no chance of survival, the Clarion Ledger reports.

Several states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas have bans at 20 weeks, when the National Right to Life Committee says fetuses can begin to feel pain. However, the Journal of American Medicine collected studies that show that fetal pain is unlikely before 23 to 30 weeks.

Mississippi is the only state to start the abortion clock based on the menstrual cycle, or two weeks before gestation actually begins. That has the effect of banning abortions after 18 weeks in the state, according to the Associated Press.

Bryant, the first-term Republican governor, has often said he wants to end all abortion in Mississippi. “This measure represents a great effort to protect the unborn in Mississippi," he said in a statement after the bill was passed on Tuesday.

Diane Derzis, owner of the only abortion clinic in the state, says that the law will not actually affect Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

"That's a totally irrelevant piece of legislation that I'm sure was aimed at the clinic. The clinic goes to 16 weeks, so what difference does that bill make?" Derzis told the Jackson Free Press in early March. "They have been posturing and wasting the taxpayers' money for the last month on that piece of legislation, and every legislator there knows that."

Opponents bashed the lack of rape and incest exceptions in the bill, according to the JFP. “A young woman who is a victim of incest or rape may not know she is pregnant, or may hide a pregnancy due to fear and stigma,” Felicia Brown-Williams, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood Southeast, wrote in a press release. “And no woman who has been raped should be forced to carry a pregnancy that is a result of an attack."

Democratic State Sen. Deborah Dawkins slammed the bill’s passage. “It occurs to me the past few years that a lot of men do not understand how the female body works,” she said, according to the Ledger. “This is about removing the rights of women without means, whether anybody here is willing to admit it or not.”

House Democratic Leader Bobby Moak noted that the bill opens the state up to lawsuits. “Are we about to go to federal court, the same way we’ve been in federal court since we passed our last abortion law three years ago?” he said.

Supporters of the Mississippi law point out that Mississippi is in the conservative-leaning 5th Circuit federal appeals court district, the AP reports. The 5th Circuit upheld a similar 20-week ban in Texas last week, but the 9th Circuit struck down a virtually identical bill in Arizona last year. The Arizona bill calculated length of pregnancy from the start of the last menstrual cycle, while the Texas bill calculated gestational age from the time of fertilization.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that abortions cannot be banned before the fetus is viable, which is believed to be between 22 and 24 weeks of pregnancy. Nationwide, only 1.5 percent of abortions happen after 20 weeks, according to a NARAL Pro-Choice America fact sheet.

Dawkins said the bill was passed based on politics, not on established medical evidence. "Because this is women's bodies, and they're used to controlling women in so many other ways, they're very comfortable with it," she said, the JFP reports.

But Republican State Sen. Angela Hill responded, "This is not about a woman's body. This is about the life of an unborn 20-week baby," according to the Huffington Post.