White lawmaker likens abortion limits to civil rights issue
Published 4:56 pm Wednesday, June 17, 2020
(AP) — A white Republican lawmaker invoked the name of a black civil rights leader Wednesday as the Mississippi Senate advanced a bill to ban abortion based on the race, sex or genetic anomalies of a fetus.
The bill is expected to go soon to Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who favors more limits on abortion in a state that already has some of the strictest laws in the U.S.
Supporters said the bill would prevent abortion for Down syndrome or other conditions. Opponents said it would unconstitutionally interfere with private medical decisions.
Republican Sen. Joey Fillingane of Sumrall said the new restrictions would prevent race-based discrimination before birth.
Fillingane, who is white, mentioned the late civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, an African American who was a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the 1960s. Hamer underwent surgery in 1961 to have a tumor removed from her uterus. Without her permission, the white physician performed a hysterectomy on Hamer.
“This is a situation that harkens back to a very dark past,” Fillingane said.
Laurie Bertram Roberts of Jackson is co-founder and director of Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, which helps women pay for abortions.
“As a disabled black mother, I reject the disingenuous invoking of race, gender and disability while lawmakers refuse to enact policies to create true equity and equality,” Roberts said in a statement. “It’s time that Mississippi lawmakers stop wasting time and energy on trying to police the reproductive lives of Mississippians.”
Other states have been sued over similar laws, and opponents questioned whether Mississippi is inviting another lawsuit even as the state is still defending itself in lawsuits over previous restrictions.
“There are some fights that are just worth fighting,” Republican Sen. Jenifer Branning of Philadelphia said Wednesday.
With the addition of conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years, several states have enacted abortion restrictions. Some laws are aimed at spurring court challenges seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
Democratic Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville opposed the bill, seeking an amendment that said: “A woman’s reproductive decisions shall be made by the woman, her family, her physician and her God.” Senators rejected that in a vote that fell mostly along party lines.
The bill would set a prison sentence of up to 10 years for any physician or other health care worker who knowingly violates the ban. The bill specifies that the woman getting the abortion would not be punished, and the ban would not apply if the woman faces a medical emergency because of the pregnancy.
The Republican-led House passed a version of the bill earlier this year. It must accept a small change the Senate made before the bill goes the governor.
Nine states ban abortion because of the sex of the fetus, two ban it because of race and two ban it because of genetic anomaly, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. Missouri is the only state that has banned all three. Kentucky’s ban on all three reasons has been put on hold by court order.
Mississippi has long required a 24-hour waiting period for abortions. Minors also must obtain permission from their parents or a judge.
In 2018, Mississippi tried to enact a law that would ban most abortions at 15 weeks. The state’s only abortion clinic sued soon after a bill was signed by then-Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican. A federal district judge blocked the law from taking effect. The same judge issued a more extensive ruling later, saying the 15-week ban is unconstitutional because it would prohibit abortion before viability, the point at which a fetus could survive outside the pregnant woman. A federal appeals court agreed with the district judge’s ruling, and state officials have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.
Even as the legal fight continued over the 15-week ban, Mississippi legislators passed a bill last year to ban most abortions once fetal cardiac activity can be detected, which can be at about six weeks — before some women know they are pregnant. Bryant signed the bill, which would have been one of the strictest abortion laws in the United States. A judge put it on hold.