Mississippi’s radical new abortion ban offers a political opening for Democrats

Image: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
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The strictest abortion law in America is waiting on the desk of Mississippi’s governor. Approved by the state senate on March 6, the bill would ban abortion statewide for women who are more than 15 weeks pregnant.

Mississippi’s new bill would be the strictest abortion law in the country, with exceptions only in the case of a mother’s “medical emergency” or severe and life-threatening fetal abnormality. The earliest gestational age at which other US states ban abortion is 20 weeks.

It’s also a move that could backfire for Republicans. If Democrats are able to mobilize around reproductive rights and persuade Mississippi women to vote for them to protest the new bill’s restrictions, they could have an advantage in the November senate election.

Mississippi governor Phillip Bryant is strongly anti-abortion. Earlier this week, he tweeted that the law would further his goal of making the state “the safest place in America for an unborn child:”

Like other bills seeking to limit abortion rights, the Mississippi law is carefully worded: It says “unborn child” and “dead child” instead of fetus, for example, while the mother is referred to as the “maternal patient.” It does not provide exceptions for rape or incest, and does not consider mental health risk to be a qualification for a woman to have an abortion. It does require doctors to file detailed documentation on abortions performed after 15 weeks, as well as to certify under oath that they operated in order to save a woman’s life or because the fetus had no chance of surviving birth.

Mississippi women already face hurdles to abortion access in their state, where only one abortion clinic remains. Three out of four Mississippi women are low-income, earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level. The time and cost of the procedure, travel, time off, and childcare could contribute to pushing women past the new 15-week deadline.

In 1992, the Supreme Court prohibited states from making anti-abortion laws that would place an “undue burden” on women. The court’s “viability rule” says that women should be able to obtain abortions up until the developmental moment that a fetus is capable of surviving outside the mother’s body (widely considered 20 weeks). Some doctors and activists have therefore argued that Mississippi’s bill is unconstitutional, as it would limit the right to abortion prior to viability. They are likely to challenge the law in court, and the state’s attorney general says it will be hard to defend.

Rallying opposition to this bill could also be an opportunity for the state’s Democrats. In November, they’ll be vying for two Senate seats, and will likely try to replicate Alabama’s historic win for Democrats last year. Mobilizing female voters on reproductive rights would be a daring but potentially effective strategy. In the 2016 election, the female vote skewed Democratic.

Or Mississippi Democrats could adopt the Democratic National Convention’s campaign’s more sheepish position of not holding abortion as “a litmus test” for would-be Democratic candidates.

Mississippi currently has just one Democrat in DC: Congress member Bennie Thompson, who has not spoken publicly about the law. Neither have the Democratic party’s senate primary candidates that have been announced so far.

Mississippi is one of the few states where the majority of the population opposes abortion; a 2014 Pew Research Center report found that 59% people surveyed opposed it in most or all cases. However, it is also one of the states with a strong female voice, with the highest percentage of women registered to vote, and 9.5% more women registered to vote than men.