There's Always a New, More Extreme Abortion Ban Around the Corner

This week, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a 15-week abortion ban into law. It's been called the "most restrictive in the nation"—but other states are already in the process of passing even harsher restrictions.
March 20, 2018, 6:18pm
Photo by the Washington Post via Getty

This week, Mississippi’s Republican Governor Phil Bryant signed into law a blanket ban on all abortions 15 weeks after a person’s last period, with no exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s health. Many media outlets have dubbed the bill “the nation’s most restrictive abortion law,” or alternatively “the country’s most severe abortion restriction.” But while it’s true that the Mississippi law is egregious, it’s sadly unexceptional—and Mississippi is far from the only state in which most second-trimester abortions are basically inaccessible.


Technically, this designation—the “most restrictive in the country”—is sort of true. That is, if you ignore all of the other, equally or more restrictive bills that have been signed into law by governors, implemented by states, and then blocked by federal courts for being unconstitutional. In 2013, Arkansas attempted a blanket ban on abortion at 12 weeks. It was blocked before it was ever allowed to take effect, and courts eventually struck it down permanently in 2015. North Dakota’s governor signed another full ban in 2013, this time making abortion illegal after just six weeks. That, too, was blocked by the courts. If Mississippi really the “most restrictive ban in the country,” it would only be due to the fact that these other bills were stopped in the courts from ever actually being enforced—which is likely the fate of this Mississippi ban, too.

Even if the 15-week ban were to survive the inevitable legal challenges, Mississippi wouldn’t be the first state in which it is effectively impossible to get a second trimester abortion. In states like Indiana, Alaska, and others, second trimester abortions can only be performed in hospitals or surgery centers, or with additional doctors on site, which has created de facto bans on the procedure after 14 or 15 weeks. (Most hospitals refuse to allow doctors to perform elective abortion procedures on site due to costs, needed resources, and political pressure.)


Then there are states like South Dakota, which simply don’t have any clinics that offer second trimester abortions at all, leaving a pregnant person with no choice but to leave the state. The sad fact is that even if Mississippi’s law does go into effect, it still won’t be the hardest place in the nation to get a pregnancy terminated.

What is indisputable is that Mississippi’s 15-week ban is currently the most restrictive ban to be signed into law—and that there will be other states soon hoping to follow that lead. HB 1510 will make abortion completely illegal at 15 weeks gestation, a full seven weeks earlier than the federal 20-week abortion ban that the anti-abortion movement is focused on passing nationally. It will end any possibility of accessing an abortion after the first trimester in Mississippi—even if someone is pregnant as the result of rape, or if a doctor realizes continuing the pregnancy could be a burden on that person’s health.

Photo by Bloomberg / Contributor via Getty

Considering the severe poverty that many of those seeking abortions in the state often face, and the fact that Mississippi does not allow insurance to pay for abortion, this gives pregnant people even less time to gather the substantial out-of-pocket funding needed to obtain a termination. And if neighboring states such as Louisiana pass their own versions of the law—as they are currently poised to do—there will be no place nearby for pregnant Mississippians to go, either.

But Mississippi’s blue ribbon prize for “The Most Restrictive Ban™” won’t last long. After all, there’s always a new, more extreme ban waiting around the corner: The Kentucky legislature is in the process of passing a ban on performing abortions that cause the "bodily dismemberment, crushing, or human vivisection of the unborn child" any time after 11 weeks “post-fertilization” (or 13 weeks gestation—about two weeks earlier than the Mississippi law). The bill is technically a ban on D&E abortions and not the common vacuum aspiration performed in the first trimester, but its language is so ambiguous that doctors will be unable to do an aspiration procedure past 11 weeks without worrying that they could technically run afoul of the law. The state’s extremely anti-abortion Republican governor is guaranteed to sign that bill into law, virtually outlawing all abortion even before the completion of the first trimester.

After that bill is signed into law, will the Mississippi ban suddenly seem less oppressive in comparison, despite being heralded just weeks earlier as the apocalypse of abortion rights? And will Kentucky’s “most extreme” ban then be replaced soon after with yet another bill that takes even more abortion access away even earlier in pregnancy? That’s the end goal for groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (who drafted this ban), National Right to Life Committee (who drafted the D&E bans) and Americans United for Life (who drafted a significant portion of the roughly 400 restrictions that have passed in the US since 2010). Together, these three groups have created a patchwork of restrictions and limitations that slowly create a stranglehold on when and where a legal abortion can be accessed—cutting patients off from care trimester, week, or clinic at a time.

That we are now seeing so many “most restrictive” bills—and that they are now piling up upon one another—means that the anti-abortion movement’s end game is already in sight. These bills are models that have been carefully crafted first to set the groundwork for creating legal precedent for banning abortion before the point of viability, then to use that groundwork to build upon in an effort to dismantle Roe v. Wade and allow states to decide for themselves if it should be legal, and to eventually make abortion illegal at a federal level, too. Starting in 2010, anti-abortion model legislation was introduced at the state level to chip away at legal abortion in an “incremental” approach. Now, with Republican majorities in control of the House, Senate, and White House and a judiciary being flooded with conservative appointments, it seems the “incremental” approach is being tossed out the window.

Today, Mississippi’s ban is being heralded the most restrictive in the country; a few weeks from now, Kentucky’s very well may be. Shortly after that we may be saying it about Iowa and their looming “heartbeat” ban, which will make abortion illegal at about four weeks post-fertilization or about two weeks after a missed period. It may only take a year or two until what we today call “the most restrictive” very well may be considered relatively permissive. And after that, we may have no legal abortion at all.