Mississippi has long stood as one of the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to abortion access. On Monday, the state went further by passing a 15-week abortion ban, a measure that reproductive rights advocates say will primarily affect black women in the state.
The Mississippi law, also known as the Gestational Age Act, bans almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, making it the most restrictive ban in the country. The measure contains an exception for medical emergencies and instances where there is a “severe fetal abnormality,” but does not include any exceptions in the case of rape or incest.
This law was “passed on the backs of black women,” says Laurie Bertram Roberts of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, which works to help women pay for abortion and emergency contraceptive services. Roberts and other advocates say the earlier cutoff will increase the financial burdens of abortion access, making it that much harder for low-income women — many of whom are women of color lacking comprehensive health insurance — to access the procedure.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who has endorsed a number of restrictive anti-abortion measures in recent years, strongly supported the new ban. “I am committed to making Mississippi the safest place in America for an unborn child, and this bill will help us achieve that goal,” Bryant tweeted Monday.
Mississippi had already adopted a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, a measure that, along with several other restrictions, played a role in whittling abortion access in the state down to a single clinic. That clinic, the Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization, does not perform abortions after 16 weeks.
For reproductive rights advocates, the new ban deals a double blow to black women, who already suffer from lack of access to health facilities in one of the poorest states in the nation.
The new ban would affect women of color more than any other group
The new abortion ban was set to take effect immediately, but after the Jackson Women’s Health Organization and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit on March 19, it has been temporarily blocked. As Vox’s Anna North explains, though, the block only lasts for 10 days. After that, North writes, “the future is in doubt for anyone seeking an abortion after 15 weeks in the state of Mississippi.”
More broadly, the ban has alarmed reproductive rights advocates, who argue that the Mississippi legislation is part of a new wave of laws intended to challenge core tenets of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, and give the Supreme Court, with input from anti-abortion justices appointed by President Donald Trump, a chance to overturn the decision.
“The anti-abortion movement is feeling emboldened to really ... take the next step,” Heather Shumaker, senior counsel for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, told North. As a result, states are trying to push “a clearly unconstitutional ban on abortion in states where they think that it could be successful,” Shumaker said.
And for black women in Mississippi, the new law presents a particular set of problems.
Mississippi is the state with the highest percentage of black residents in the country, and the state is also one of the country’s poorest. Mississippi’s black residents struggle with poverty, poor education systems, and the effects of depopulation. Abortion access in the state is limited, according to the Guttmacher Institute: Some 91 percent of women in Mississippi do not live in a county with an abortion clinic.
Should the 15-week ban go into effect, reproductive rights advocates say things will just get harder. “Taking away a week will mean more women we will need [to get] help in-state and more people we will need to refer out of state,” Roberts says.
Women of color often face additional barriers when it comes to abortion access. Roberts says that many of the women she works with also deal with health problems, financial difficulties, and, in some cases, domestic violence. And while many women who undergo abortions are often criticized for their decisions, racism, shame, and stigma can make deciding to get an abortion particularly difficult for black women.
And black women’s struggles with reproductive health care are not limited to abortion. Mississippi also currently has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country — and has a higher black maternal mortality rate. In 2016, the black infant mortality rate in the state was 70 percent higher than the mortality rate of white infants.
Roberts says that her group has focused particularly on providing services to black women, and that currently more than 80 percent of the women who contact her group are black. “The need greatly outpaces what we have the capacity to do,” Roberts says.
With this new legislation, things seem like they’re only going to get more difficult.