On Tuesday, the Mississippi legislature gave final approval to a 20-week abortion ban. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) has already promised to sign the measure into law. “This measure represents a great effort to protect the unborn in Mississippi,” Bryant said in a statement after the legislature approved the bill this week.
That will make Mississippi the 21st state to impose an unconstitutional limit on later abortion procedures — and the latest state to fall in line with the popular anti-choice trend of enacting measures based on “fetal pain.”
State lawmakers typically claim that it’s important to ban abortion at 20 weeks because fetuses can feel pain after that point. But there’s no scientific basis for that claim. In reality, 20-week bans have been able to pick up steam simply because the anti-choice community has successfully capitalized on the emotional outrage surrounding later abortions, and has worked to frame this policy as a moderate compromise.
Fetal pain measures are primarily intended to gradually chip away at Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion until the point of viability at around 24 weeks of pregnancy. In fact, Mississippi’s 20-week ban actually narrows the window for legal abortion services even further than most of the other fetal pain measures in place in other states. It’s based on a similar measure in Arizona that calculates gestational age in a different way, outlawing abortion about two weeks earlier than other states. Although Arizona’s measure was permanently struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, abortion opponents in Mississippi are counting on the fact that their state is in a more conservative federal appeals court district.
“This is not about a woman’s body. This is about the life of an unborn 20-week baby,” Sen. Angela Hill (R), one of the state lawmakers who voted for the bill, claimed.
But a closer look at the reproductive health landscape in the state undermines Hill’s point. In fact, Mississippi — which has already enacted just about every abortion restriction possible, and has just one abortion clinic left in the entire state — doesn’t even offer procedures after 20 weeks to begin with. The state’s sole clinic only performs the abortions up to 16 weeks of pregnancy. Passing a 20-week abortion ban won’t have any meaningful policy impact; it’s simply a symbolic measure of support for the larger fetal pain strategy.
In an interview with ThinkProgress earlier this month, a representative from the Center for Reproductive Rights noted that at least 12 different state-level fetal pain bans have been introduced or carried over from last year. But this policy isn’t successfully advancing everywhere. At the end of last week, West Virginia’s pro-life governor vetoed a 20-week ban, pointing out that it doesn’t make sense to enact a law that’s clearly unconstitutional.
Abortions after 20 weeks are already very rare, representing just 1.5 percent of all abortion procedures nationwide. The women who need later abortion care are typically individuals in dire circumstances — like impoverished women who struggle to get to a clinic earlier, or women who discover serious health issues and are forced to make the difficult decision to end a wanted pregnancy.