The halls of Jackson, Mississippi’s grand and marble-covered capitol building were quiet on Monday after Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed the nation’s first 15-week abortion ban into law. But even without fanfare, his signature sparked an almost immediate volley from the Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction on behalf of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state’s only abortion clinic. The law is unconstitutional as it violates U.S. Supreme Court precedent, according to the lawsuit. By Tuesday, a federal judge had granted a ten-day restraining order to keep the law from going into effect—otherwise, it would have had an immediate impact.
The law’s passage already nearly disrupted a woman’s care. The attorney representing the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in its lawsuit told the judge a woman with a pregnancy at 15 weeks’ gestation was scheduled for an abortion at the clinic on Tuesday at 2 p.m. that would have been impossible without his restraining order. She would have had few options: The next available appointment was in eight days, putting her past 16 weeks and therefore unable to get an abortion at the clinic since that’s the clinic’s cutoff. Two other women at 15 weeks are scheduled for abortions next week.
If the law does eventually take effect, it will increase the already high costs of obtaining abortion care in Mississippi for people just like them. Because the Jackson Women’s Health Organization is the state’s only place to get an abortion, women who live in the northern or southern parts of the state often travel six hours round trip to get the care they need. As of 2014, 91 percent of women in Mississippi lived in a county with no abortion provider—and at that time there were two in the state. But thanks to prior Mississippi laws, it’s even more complicated: Abortions are already banned after 20 weeks’ gestation in most cases, and someone who seeks one before the cutoff still has to undergo a 24-hour waiting period after their first visit and then make a second visit before receiving the service. “Because of that and because there’s only one clinic in the state,” said Felicia Brown-Williams, Mississippi state director for Planned Parenthood Southeast, “you’re looking at people potentially having to make two trips.”
Even someone who can manage it all in a single trip has to come up with the money for transportation, a hotel room, time away from work, child care for any children in the family, and all the other costs of a long trip. “There’s so much more that’s built into it,” Brown-Williams said.
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That financial and logistical burden will only intensify. “This will absolutely disproportionately impact low-income women and women of color,” she said. Those women are already the majority of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization’s clients, as well as most of the people who reach out to the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund to get financial support for abortion care.
“Eighty to 85 percent of our callers are Black women, almost every one of our callers [is] low-income … working class and lower-middle class,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the fund. “Not everybody just has $600 lying around.”
Legislators want to make it even more difficult for them to get care. The new law “means more women will have to travel out of state to receive access to care,” Brown-Williams said. And that will come with added costs—costs that some women just won’t be able to afford. “Every one of these restrictions always makes it more difficult for a woman of color who is low-income living in the state of Mississippi,” she said.
“It will be extremely harmful for people who just lost a week of access,” Roberts said.
She and her organization are already stretched. “When a ban happens, people swoop in to give money,” she said. But “it’s never enough.”
On the other hand, “Women with financial means will always have access to abortion,” Brown-Williams said. “They’ll be able to travel to another place to receive services.”
There was an effort to reduce some of the financial burden that state lawmakers are trying to place on low-income women. State Sen. Deborah Dawkins (D-Pass Christian) drafted four amendments that she tried to add to the bill: one requiring that the state pay for child care for any woman who opts not to have an abortion between 12 and 15 weeks’ gestation, one providing such a woman the same health insurance that lawmakers themselves enjoy, one providing that insurance to her child, and one covering state college tuition for her child within Mississippi.
“If we’re going to tell women what to do with the most intimate part of their body … we should at least assist them,” Dawkins said. She pointed out that it’s particularly expensive to care for a child with severe disabilities, but that the health care her amendment would have provided would help alleviate the cost. Mothers “can’t work if they don’t have day care,” she pointed out. But speaking of her fellow lawmakers, she said, “All those white guys … it’s not been a problem for them.”
Dawkins has had to deal with some of those challenges herself, though. She had her first child at the age of 16 and had to lean on the help of her family to care for her daughter when she went back to finish high school. Thanks to “easy access to birth control,” she didn’t have her second child for another 13 years.
“I just feel their pain,” she said of the women who need abortions, “and I want everybody else to feel it too.”
Her amendments represented “an opportunity for folks to put their money where their mouth is,” Brown-Williams added. “Live the values they’ve expressed.”
But the Mississippi State Senate didn’t even debate the issues Dawkins brought up. Shortly after she introduced her first amendment, it was ruled not germane to the topic at hand and tossed out without so much as a vote. The same happened to a similar one drafted by state Sen. Barbara Blackmon (D-Canton).
Now, instead of spending resources to help low-income parents, the state is poised to spend its resources defending its new law in court. “In Mississippi, we have no money for roads and bridges, we have no money for Medicaid, we have no money for schools,” Brown-Williams said. “The fact that legislators are choosing very intentionally to focus on this issue … that will suck up state resources is irresponsible and unconscionable.”
“There are so many things you could be doing other than this if you care about babies,” Roberts added.
Last year, advocates were able to defeat all of the anti-choice bills and those that would have negatively affected women’s health. “We’ve literally never been able to do that before,” Brown-Williams said. But that meant she was expecting an onslaught this year. And that’s what has happened: There were a total of 16 such bills introduced this session, she said—three different 15-week bans, including the one that just became law, and even some six-week bans that, given that most women don’t even know they’re pregnant at that point, would have meant “a de facto ban on abortion in Mississippi, period.”
The fact that the bill was written to take effect immediately is also “highly unusual,” Brown-Williams said, given that newly passed laws—even ones related to abortion access—typically all go into effect at the same time, on July 1 after the legislative session. It “speaks to their desire to get this into the court system as quickly as possible,” she said.
“I find it infuriating that we’re being used as the testing ground for this,” said Brown-Williams, a lifelong native of Mississippi. Right Wing Watch reported in January that anti-choice groups pushed for the 15-week ban in Mississippi in the hopes of a favorable circuit court ruling and eventually bringing the issue to the Supreme Court—where they hope to overturn Roe v. Wade. “They have a clear long-term goal of banning it altogether.”