Mississippi’s 15-Week Abortion Ban Was Just Struck Down (Again)

“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,” wrote federal district court judge Carlton W. Reeves last year when he ruled that Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban violated the U.S. Constitution. “As a man, who cannot get pregnant or seek an abortion, I can only imagine the anxiety and turmoil a woman might experience when she decides whether to terminate her pregnancy through an abortion. Respecting her autonomy demands that this statute be enjoined.”

On Friday, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Appeals affirmed that sentiment, ruling in a decision in Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs that the state cannot ban abortion before viability, according to Supreme Court precedent in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood.

(NARAL Pro-Choice America)

“The Fifth Circuit recognized today what is obvious: Mississippi’s abortion ban defies decades of Supreme Court precedent,” Hillary Schneller, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement“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.”

Indeed, Mississippi ranks dead last in health for women and children. It is the worst state for low birthweight babies, preterm birth, infant and neonatal mortality; and ranks 28th for maternal mortality. But rather than working to address the appalling state of women’s and children’s health in the state, legislators are fixated on making abortion more dangerous, more expensive and less accessible.

Legislators banned abortion after 15 weeks from the last menstrual period—13 weeks into pregnancy—with exceptions only when there is a “severe fetal abnormality” or a medical emergency, defined narrowly as a life-threatening physical condition or when a pregnancy poses a “serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” The law has no exceptions for medical emergencies resulting from mental illnesses or other risks to a woman’s health, nor for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. 

Mississippi also passed an ever more stringent ban at six weeks this year, joining eight other states that banned abortion in 2019: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio and Utah. In a separate suit, the Center for Reproductive Rights is challenging the earlier ban, which a federal court blocked in May.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, abortion is very difficult to access in Mississippi. There is only one clinic and many hurdles for pregnant patients, including “a requirement that a pregnant person make two in-person trips to the clinic and delay their abortion by at least 24-hours after the first visit, state-mandated biased counseling, a medically unnecessary and onerous regulatory scheme that applies only to abortion providers, a ban on the use of telemedicine for abortion care and a law that restricts the provision of abortion to physicians only, which bars other qualified clinicians from providing abortion.”

Judge Reeves also called out lawmakers’ hypocrisy in passing abortion restrictions but refusing to expand Medicaid. “Mississippi Legislature’s professed interest in ‘women’s health’ is pure gaslighting,” he declared. “Its leaders are proud to challenge Roe but choose not to lift a finger to address the tragedies lurking on the other side of the delivery room: our alarming infant and maternal mortality rates.”

Noting the history sexism and racism in Mississippi, including that the state didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until the 1980s, Judge Reeves described the abortion ban as “closer to the old Mississippi—the Mississippi bent on controlling women and minorities.”

The Fifth Circuit ruling on the Mississippi law is the first federal appellate court to rule on a recent abortion ban.

“Mississippi politicians have done everything in their power to cut off abortion access in our state. Despite these attempts, abortion remains legal in Mississippi and our clinic is open,” said Shannon Brewer, director of Jackson Women’s Health Organization. “But year after year, the state makes it harder to access abortion. Because of that, many of our patients drive hundreds of miles and spend weeks or months saving money to reach us—for abortion care and for gas, a hotel and to cover childcare.” 


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.