Judge blocks Mississippi's 15-week abortion ban a day after governor signs it into law

(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)Pro-choice protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 2, 2016.

A judge has temporarily blocked a new Mississippi law that would have been the earliest ban on abortions in the nation, just a day after it was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant.

The law, which bans abortions after 15 weeks' gestation, was supposed to take effect immediately after it was signed by Bryant on Monday. But the state's only abortion clinic, Jackson Women's Health Organization, quickly challenged the law in court, saying it is unconstitutional because it bans abortions weeks before a fetus can survive outside the womb.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves granted the clinic's request for a temporary restraining order that would prevent the law from taking effect as the lawsuit moves forward.

While several states have banned abortions at 20 weeks, Mississippi was the first state to ban the procedure at 15 weeks.

Reeves stressed that the "ultimate question" was whether abortions can be banned by the state before viability of the fetus.

"Does the state have the right to trump the woman's right to have control over her decisions, over her body?" he said.

Paul Barnes, a special assistant state attorney general, contended that the law serves Mississippi's "interest in protecting maternal health and the state's interest in protecting unborn life." He argued that medical advances and legal decision continue to define viability earlier, noting that it used to be around 28 weeks in 1973, but it has been defined as being 23 or 24 weeks in more recent court cases.

Reeves pointed out in his order that the Mississippi law "places viability at 15 weeks — about two months earlier than where the medical consensus places it."

According to Fox News, the judge did not rule from the bench but granted the temporary restraining order about an hour later, noting that the clinic's lawyers have said that a woman who was at least 15 weeks pregnant was scheduled to have an abortion Tuesday afternoon.

One of the lawyers, Rob McDuff, noted that the woman's next available appointment would be March 28 because physicians travel out of state to work there. He went on to say that the clinic does not perform abortions after 16 weeks of pregnancy, and the woman's next appointment would put her beyond that limit. The lawsuit noted that 78 abortions were performed at the clinic in 2017 at 15 weeks or older.

The Mississippi law does not contain exceptions for rape and incest, but it includes exceptions in cases when a fetus has health problems, making it "incompatible with life" outside of the womb at full term, or if the pregnant woman's life or a "major bodily function" is threatened by the pregnancy.

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