Saying that he was “saving the unborn,” Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi signed into law on Monday a measure that would ban almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion rights supporters called it the earliest abortion ban in the country, and said it was an unconstitutional restriction that defied years of federal court precedent over the limits states may impose on abortion providers.
The only abortion clinic in the state quickly filed a complaint in federal court to block the law.
The bill, labeled the Gestational Age Act, was passed overwhelmingly by both chambers of the Republican-controlled State Legislature this month.
The governor was in a jovial mood as he signed the bill into law. “We are saving more of the unborn than any state in America, and what better thing we could do,” said Mr. Bryant, a Republican serving his second term.
He said he expected a swift legal challenge, and indeed, the abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, filed a complaint in United States District Court for Mississippi’s Southern District less than an hour after he signed the bill into law. The organization sought a preliminary injunction preventing officials from enforcing the act. Later Monday, the organization filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, said Robert B. McDuff, one of the lawyers for the clinic.
In a telephone interview late Monday, Diane Derzis, the owner of the clinic, said that a young woman whose pregnancy was beyond the 15-week limit was scheduled for an abortion on Tuesday.
“She’s the first casualty of this bill,” Ms. Derzis said, unless the court grants the injunction. “That’s the saddest thing of all. We’re not talking about an issue here. We’re talking about people. This is a decision she made to better her life, and we’ve totally interfered with that.”
Mississippi law had previously prohibited abortions after 20 weeks. Ms. Derzis said that her clinic does not perform abortions after 16 weeks, so the previous law had not been challenged in court.
Two of the three lawyers representing the clinic work for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based abortion rights group. In a news release, the group said that the law violated longstanding Supreme Court precedent, established in Roe v. Wade and reaffirmed in a 2016 case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, that states may not ban abortions before they are deemed viable outside the womb, which is generally at about 24 to 26 weeks.
The group noted that in 2016, the Supreme Court declined to review lower-court rulings that struck down a North Dakota law that banned abortions after six weeks and an Arkansas law banning them after 12 weeks.
Mississippi’s new 12-page law offers no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, but it does allow exceptions for “a medical emergency, or in the case of a severe fetal abnormality.” The text of the law also lays out a number of familiar arguments embraced by abortion rights opponents, calling the procedure “a barbaric practice, dangerous for the maternal patient, and demeaning to the medical profession.”
The clinic’s complaint lays out another set of familiar arguments: “Abortion is one of the safest medical practices in the United States,” it says.
Katherine Klein, advocacy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Mississippi branch, said she expected the law to be struck down. “The governor is signing a clearly unconstitutional bill that’s just going to waste taxpayer money in the inevitable litigation that is to come,” she said.
Jameson Taylor, acting president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative group that helped draft the measure, applauded Mr. Bryant.
“This legislation is intended to encourage that dialogue between the states and the courts, as to what is that line at which states can regulate abortion, in particular for the sake of protecting maternal health,” Mr. Taylor said.