Federal Judge Blocks Mississippi 'Heartbeat' Abortion Bill, Six Months after Enjoining Less-Restrictive Law

A volunteer escorts patients into the Jackson Women's Health Organization, the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, and pro-life activists wait for patients to arrive on April 5, 2018. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Six months after issuing an injunction against a Mississippi state law severely restricting abortions after 15 weeks, a federal judge has enjoined a newer, stricter law that seeks to bar most abortions after only eight weeks.

"Here we go again," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves in his order (see full document below) granting the injunction. "Mississippi has passed another law ban- ning abortions prior to viability."

Reeves was the same federal judge who in November ruled against the Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks gestation.

"The Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional and permanently enjoined its enforcement," wrote the judge Friday. "The State responded by passing an even more restrictive bill."

Explained the judge: "This Court previously found the 15-week ban to be an unconstitutional violation of substantive due process because the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that women have the right to choose an abortion prior to viability, and a fetus is not viable at 15 weeks."

Reeves noted that the state had conceded that, if a fetus is not viable at 15 weeks after implantion, "it is not viable at 6 weeks."

The judge ruled that the Mississippi law "threatens immediate harm to women's rights, especially considering most women do not seek abortion services until after 6 weeks."

He said that allowing this law to take effect would stop the state's sole remaining abortion provider to stop offering the procedure.

"By banning abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, S.B. 2116 prevents a woman's free choice, which is central to personal dignity and autonomy," explained Reeves. "This injury outweighs any interest the State might have in banning abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat. Any delay in the enforcement of S.B. 2116 will serve the public interest by protecting this established right and the rule of law."

The injunction was cheered by abortion-rights advocates.

"Once again the rule of law has prevailed over political ploys to control personal health decisions," wrote the Center for Reproductive Rights on Twitter. The group filed the lawsuit on behalf of Jackson Women's Health Organization, the lone remaining legal abortion provider in Mississippi. The clinic was also the plaintiff in the lawsuit that overturned the original 15-week law. In fact, today's injunction resulted not from a new lawsuit, but as a supplement to the matter already brought to the court by JWHO.

The state had tried to argue that JWHO's request for an injunction should have been disregarded by the court since the new 8-week abortion law was not part of that original suit. Lawyers for the state accused JWHO of attempting to "shoehorn a separate and distinct constitutional challenge" into their existint complaint.

However, Judge Reeves disagreed.

"The supplemental claims involve the same parties as the original suit. The supplemental claims pose the same legal question as the original suit: does the law ban abortion prior to viability? And the supplemental claims involve a substantial overlap of facts relevant to the original suit," wrote the judge, who then explained that the claims related to the 8-week ban could be ajudicated simultaneously with the original suit because some aspects of that dispute are still in the discovery phase.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who is also a candidate for governor in the state, reportedly said he intends to appeal this ruling.

"The Fifth Circuit has not squarely addressed this issue, and I intend to appeal this order which enjoined the effective date of the fetal heartbeat bill," said Hood in a statement to the Clarion Ledger.

A growing number of states have considered or passed "heartbeat" anti-abortion measures in recent months. Mississippi's neighbor, Alabama, earlier this month passed the most restrictive law in the nation. It not only bans nearly all abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat — a stage that can occur before many women even know they are pregnant — but it contains no exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest.