Near-ban on abortion advances in Mississippi Legislature

Published 5:20 pm Friday, February 23, 2007

Mississippi lawmakers are moving closer to agreeing on an election-year bill that would ban most abortions in the state and set prison time for those performing the procedures, but the near-ban would take effect here only if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns a 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

“Basically, the national Right to Life organization wrote this bill,” House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, told his colleagues during debate Thursday.

Mississippi is one of several states where legislators are considering new abortion restrictions this year.

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In South Dakota, a state Senate committee has killed a bill that would ban most abortions, but a lawmaker said Thursday he was trying to find a strategy to revive it.

In Indiana, a bill requiring doctors to tell women seeking an abortion that human life begins at conception cleared a Senate committee Wednesday, but the proposal’s future is uncertain.

The Mississippi bill passed the state House 95-16, and no lawmaker argued against it.

The bill combines three abortion-restriction measures that cleared the state Senate in the past few weeks. Because the House merged the original proposals into one bill, the Senate must either accept the House plan or seek final negotiations between the two chambers.

Most lawmakers and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour are seeking re-election this year, and Barbour has said he favors putting tighter restrictions on abortion. Thursday’s debate came exactly a week before candidates’ filing deadline for state elections.

The bill says most abortions would be banned in Mississippi if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the court’s decision that legalized abortion 34 years ago. The only exceptions in the state would be in cases of rape or if the pregnant woman’s life were in danger. The bill has no separate exception that would allow abortions for pregnancies caused by incest.

“Legal counsel thinks that rape and incest is one and the same,” Holland said.

By a voice vote, the House rejected an amendment that would have allowed abortions in cases of incest.

If the Roe v. Wade is overturned and the near-ban becomes law, anyone performing an illegal abortion in Mississippi would face one to 10 years in prison.

Other parts of the bill would become law July 1.

One provision says anyone performing an abortion would first have to do an ultrasound and allow the pregnant woman to hear the fetal heartbeat.

The other July 1 provision tightens the existing state law that requires a minor to have permission of her parents or a judge before getting an abortion. The bill says a chancery judge would have to decide “by clear and convincing evidence” that the minor is mature and well-informed enough to decide to have an abortion and that performing an abortion would be in the girl’s best interest.

Tom Head, secretary of the Mississippi chapter of the National Organization for Women, said it’s significant that the Mississippi bill apparently is not intended to create a test case to take to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“What this means is we need to deal with activism on the federal level to ensure justices are not appointed who would overturn Roe v. Wade,” Head said.

Mississippi now has only one abortion clinic, in the capital city of Jackson.

State Department of Health statistics show there were 3,041 abortions performed in Mississippi in 2005, down from a 10-year high of 4,325 in 1997.

The bill is Senate Bill 2391.