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Judge Allows Mississippi to End Rape Exceptions For Abortions After Six Weeks

photo shows a woman in a pink vest with the words "PINK HOUSE DEFENDERS" on it speaking into a megaphone while standing in front of the Mississippi Capitol building
Mississippi’s six-week abortion ban became effective after a federal judge lifted an injunction on Sept. 21, 2022, limiting rape exceptions to only six weeks. Seen here, Pink House Defender Derenda Hancock spoke up against the law in front of the Mississippi Capitol Building in Jackson on May 21, 2019. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Three years after blocking Mississippi’s six-week abortion ban that includes no rape exceptions, a federal judge allowed it to take effect Wednesday, citing the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade.

A 2007 trigger law that took effect in July already bans all abortions at any stage, but with technical exceptions for rape and when necessary to save the life of a pregnant person. With the six-week ban now in effect, though, rape exceptions are no longer allowed after the sixth week of pregnancy, or once cardiac activity becomes detectable.

In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi sued for the right to enforce a 2018 law banning abortions after 15-weeks. On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court’s right-wing majority ruled that abortion is not a fundamental right and that states have the right to ban abortion care.

Judge Carlton W. Reeves of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi originally blocked the 15-week ban in 2018 with an injunction and, when lawmakers passed the six-week ban in 2019, blocked it, too.

“With the recent changes in the membership of the Supreme Court, it may be that the State believes divine providence covered the Capitol when it passed this legislation,” the Barack Obama-appointed judge wrote in a November 20, 2018 ruling, citing changes then-President Donald Trump had made to the nation’s highest court. “Time will tell. If overturning Roe v. Wade is the State’s desired result, the State will have to seek that relief from a higher court.”

a photo shows Judge Reeves standing in a doorway with a finger over his mouth and his other fingers resting under his chin
Judge Carlton W. Reeves of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi blocked Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban with an injunction in 2018 and the State’s six-week abortion ban in 2019, citing the Roe v. Wade precedent. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, he formally vacated the injunctions on Sept. 21, 2022. Photo by Megan Bean / Mississippi State University

In an order on Sept. 2, 2022, Judge Reeves acknowledged that the State had succeeded at doing just that and formally vacated his 2018 ruling.

“Dobbs also requires vacatur of this Court’s injunction preventing the enforcement of Mississippi’s six week abortion ban … . Accordingly, that injunction too is vacated,” he said, allowing 14 days for the parties involved to challenge the order. None did.

Reeves issued his final judgment on Wednesday, Sept. 21, allowing the 2019 law to take effect. While it technically limits the rape exception, it likely has little practical effect. The state’s only abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, closed its doors in July after the trigger law took effect. Still, at least one Mississippi Republican has expressed support for repealing the remaining rape exceptions before six weeks.

Abortion rights advocates have raised concerns over whether pregnant people will be able to access life-saving abortion care because of ambiguity in the law surrounding when a pregnancy becomes truly life-threatening.

U.S. House Rep. Michael Guest, a Mississippi Republican, is pushing for a national abortion ban after the sixth week of pregnancy. The measure currently enjoys support from 123 Republicans in the U.S. House, though it faces long odds in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

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