Mississippi moves toward more restrictions while other states expand abortion

By Jacob Comello
WASHINGTON (CNS) – Since the end of January, the legislatures of New York, Virginia and other states have made headlines by approving or introducing policies that relax abortion restrictions, even in the third trimester and during labor.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Mississippi passed a pair of bills that would prohibit abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected — which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant indicated earlier this year he would sign such a bill into law.
Similar bills are making their ways through the legislatures in five other states, mostly in the Southeast.
Last year the state passed one of the most restrictive laws in the nation to ban abortions after 15 weeks, but that ban was halted by a federal judge. State Attorney General Jim Hood said at that time he would appeal to have the law reinstated.Pro-Life Mississippi immediately praised the passage of the bills. “We thank all our representatives and senators who helped on the Mississippi Bill HB732 and SB2116 to ban abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected. We pray that others will check their heart and see the importance of saving lives in Mississippi,” organization president Laura Duran wrote in a press release.
Now New Mexico is one step closer to passing a similar bill that loosens the state’s already liberal abortion laws and would erase virtually all abortion restrictions in the event that the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade is overturned.
The “Decriminalize Abortion Bill,” or H.B. 51, has now made its way through the New Mexico House of Representatives, receiving the body’s overall approval in a 40-29 floor vote Feb. 6 after being confirmed by several committees. It is now headed for the Senate, where it will be the subject of further debate and another vote.
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican daily newspaper, there are three main parts of New Mexico’s pre-Roe abortion law that would be invalidated by the act: a prohibition that makes abortion a felony; language that permits abortions in some circumstances as determined by a physician, such as rape or threat to a mother’s life; and an opt-out provision for hospitals or providers that register moral or religious objections to performing the procedure.
Most of these were invalidated already by Roe v. Wade or the New Mexico Court of Appeals, giving New Mexico some of the laxest abortion policy in the country.
But if Roe v. Wade is eventually overturned, this state law would ensure that abortion would be available on-demand in New Mexico.
In multiple statements, the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops has condemned the bill and urged Catholics in the state’s three dioceses to take action against it.
In one statement released before H.B. 51 had passed the House Judiciary Committee, the bishops criticized the bill as a whole but especially the portions that would be in effect even without a Roe v. Wade repeal. For example, as per the Jan. 31 release, “H.B. 51 guarantees that parents will NOT be involved in their minor daughter’s abortion,” which the bishops see as extremely damaging and opening the door to abuse.
Additionally, in that statement the bishops lamented the lack of protections for doctors who object to abortion on moral or religious grounds: “H.B. 51 strips away the only explicit conscience protection for doctors and other medical professionals that protect them from being forced to participate in abortions. … Medical professionals should not have to worry that the state of New Mexico and private companies could have the power to force them to choose between their faith and their profession.”
The statement included statistics collected from the New Mexico Alliance for Life, which seemed to demonstrate that the principles of the bill are not attuned to New Mexican opinion. Included were claims that “67 percent of New Mexicans support parental involvement in a minor’s abortion” and that “70 percent of New Mexicans oppose allowing abortions after five months up to birth.”
After H.B. 51 had cleared the House, the bishops released another statement, again denouncing the elimination of religious protections, which would be enforceable without a Roe overturn: “Two parts of the statute are not void by the U.S. Supreme Court and are enforced. We oppose H.B. 51 and urge our legislators to protect the conscience of our health care workers and protect women by maintaining the conscience clause and requirement of the doctor.”

Supreme Court refuses to hear abortion law appeal

By Carol Zimmermann
WASHINGTON (CNS) –The day after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a major abortion ruling striking down regulations on Texas abortion clinics and doctors, it rejected an appeal to reinstate laws in Mississippi and Wisconsin that would place similar requirements on abortion doctors.
It also denied an appeal of a Washington state rule requiring pharmacists to dispense Plan B or other emergency contraceptives despite their religious objections to doing so.
The court June 28 refused to hear appeals from Mississippi and Wisconsin challenging lower-court rulings blocking their laws similar to the one in Texas that require abortion doctors in the two states to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
Federal appeals courts in Chicago and New Orleans had previously ruled against the states.
Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said in a statement that the court’s decision was “not surprising” after its rule on the Texas law. He had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Texas case.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said he was disappointed by the court’s Texas ruling and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said the ruling endangers women’s lives.
According to The Associated Press, if Mississippi’s law had been enacted it would have likely led to the closure of the state’s only abortion clinic.
In a 5-3 vote June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down restrictions on Texas abortion clinics that required them to comply with standards of ambulatory surgical centers and required their doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.
The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, challenged a 2013 state law, H.B. 2, placing the requirements on the state’s abortion clinics. Opponents of the law claimed the requirements were aimed at closing abortion clinics. But the state and many pro-life advocates maintained that the law protected women’s health.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious groups submitted a joint friend of the court brief in the case supporting the Texas law, which was similar to other state laws regulating abortion clinics across the country.
The Supreme Court also refused to hear an appeal from pharmacists who have religious objections to a Washington state law that requires pharmacies to dispense Plan B or other emergency contraceptives also called “morning after pills.”
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas said they would have heard the appeal and Alito wrote a 15-page dissent against the court’s decision not to hear the case, calling it an “ominous sign.”
“If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern,” he added.
Even before the Supreme Court issued a decision on whether it would take the case, the pharmacists’ case already had gathered 14 friend of the court briefs from supportive groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The case was filed with the court by the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom. Kristen Waggoner, a senior counsel with the firm, said that the state of Washington allows pharmacists to refer customers to other pharmacists for just about any reason — except reasons of conscience – and the other 49 states allow conscience-based referrals, which are fully supported by the American Pharmacists Association and dozens more pharmacy associations.
Follow Zimmermann on Twitter @carolmaczim.

Mississippi bans dismemberment abortions

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a law banning dismemberment abortions. (CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters)

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a law banning dismemberment abortions. (CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters)

By Catholic News Service
JACKSON, Miss. (CNS) — A new law in Mississippi will prohibit dismemberment abortions, effective July 1.
“This law has the power to change how the public views the gruesome reality of abortion in the United States,” Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, said in a statement.
On April 15, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law the Unborn Child Protection From Dismemberment Abortion Act, passed by the state Senate in a 40-6 vote in March and by the state House 83-33 in February.
“We applaud any effort to end abortion in our communities and will continue to support women in crisis through our efforts with Catholic Charities, adoption services, parish-based ministries and supporting organizations such as Birthright,” said Father Kevin Slattery, vicar general of the Diocese of Jackson.
“There are many faithful people out there working to give women the choice of life,” he said in a statement. “We hope we can continue to build and strengthen those ministries for people in need.”
Mississippi is the fourth state to enact the measure, after West Virginia, Kansas and Oklahoma. According to National Right to Life, the legislation — based on the pro-life organization’s model bill — also has been introduced in Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri and Nebraska and may be taken up in several other states.
The procedure is a form of second-trimester abortion that “dismembers a living unborn child and extracts him or her one piece at a time from the uterus.” It is called a D&E for “dilation and evacuation.”
According to the National Abortion Federation Abortion Training Textbook, “D&E remains the most prevalent method of second-trimester pregnancy termination in the USA, accounting for 96 percent of all second trimester abortions.”
It is different from the partial-birth abortion method used in late-term abortions, which is now illegal in the United States.
“When the national debate focuses only on the mother, it is forgetting someone,” said Mary Spaulding Balch, National Right to Life’s director of state legislation. “Banning dismemberment abortion in Mississippi has the potential to transform the debate when people realize that living unborn children are being killed by being torn limb from limb.”

High court takes on HHS, death penalty, but holds off on abortion cases

The Supreme Court ruled on a handful of other cases involving issues of life and social justice before it ended its summer session. In a June 29 order, the High Court continued to shield several Pennsylvania religious institutions from having to provide employees with health care coverage that includes contraceptives.
The order in a case filed by the bishops and the Dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie, Pennsylvania, their charitable institutions and a school said the government may not enforce the challenged provisions of the Affordable Care Act, pending final resolution of legal challenges on the merits of the institutions’ objections to what is known as the contraceptive mandate.
Justice Samuel Alito in April had granted an interim injunction to the Pennsylvania ministries.
No case challenging the mandate or the accommodation as applied to faith-based nonprofit institutions has yet reached the Supreme Court. Several federal circuit courts of appeal have ruled that religious rights are not substantially burdened by the process required for the accommodation. Only one circuit court, the 11th, granted an injunction – to EWTN, a Catholic media conglomerate. That court heard oral arguments in February over whether the company has a valid claim that spares it from following the procedures.
The Supreme Court has, however, acted in favor of faith-based institutions that are suing over the contraceptive mandate each time it has come to the high court. Five of those actions, including twice in the Pennsylvania cases, were about an injunction pending further litigation.
In another in a series of bitterly divided end-of-term cases, the Supreme Court June 29 upheld the execution protocol used by Oklahoma and several other states. The 5-4 ruling written by Justice Samuel Alito upheld lower courts that said the use of the drug midazolam in lethal injection does not violate Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling was among the last three opinions released, closing out the court’s 2014 term.
The majority opinion in Glossip v. Gross noted that it has been previously established multiple times that capital punishment is constitutional and only delved into whether the claims by Oklahoma death-row inmates that the effects of the drugs used in lethal injection are unnecessarily painful. Among the reasons Alito cited in upholding lower courts were that “the prisoners failed to identify a known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain.” Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas each filed concurring opinions. Alito’s majority ruling also was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The Texas Catholic Conference expressed disappointment with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision June 29 which temporarily blocks Texas from enforcing new requirements on abortion clinics that would force many of them to close. The Texas law requires the clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers when performing abortions. Other provisions of the law, such as requiring abortion doctors to have hospital privileges and prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks gestation, were not affected.
In a June 9 ruling, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the law, and rejected pleas by abortion clinics to suspend its implementation while it is appealed. The Supreme Court ruling prevents enforcement of the law until the fall when the high court will decide if the justices should hear an appeal from a lower court. A June 30 statement from the Catholic conference, the public policy arm of the Texas Catholic bishops, said the bishops “grieve for the unborn children who will continue to die, and are concerned for the mothers who will subjected to substandard care, while the court delays until the fall to resolve this issue.”
The Supreme Court took no action in a challenge of a Mississippi law passed last year requiring doctors at the state’s only remaining abortion clinic to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. This means the law will remain on hold until the appeals process is complete.
Aside from announcing the disposition of other cases it has been asked to review, the court is not scheduled to conduct any further business in the public eye until the 2015 term opens Oct. 5.

2014 Legislative review

By Maureen Smith
Catholic advocates scored a couple of victories in the 2014 legislative session, including passage of the criminal justice reform bill and a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Other issues, such as Medicaid expansion, again languished. Here is a brief look at the session, which ended Wednesday, April 2.

The criminal justice reform bill has the cornerstone of this year’s Catholic Day at the Capitol (CDC). Governor Phil Bryant signed it into law Monday, April 1, and it will go into effect July 1. A task force wrote the mammoth bill, House Bill 585 (HB 585), which includes the opportunity for addicts to go to drug courts and get treatment instead of just jail time, new guidelines on the minimum amount of time served and offers other options to prevent jailing people with probation violations. The bill saw many revisions during the legislative process, but advocates are pleased with the start of what they hope will be more comprehensive reforms to come.

“Although motivated primarily by the escalating costs to the state for our huge prison population, the Mississippi Legislature did the right thing in passing criminal justice reform legislation,” said Msgr. Elvin Sunds, vicar general for the diocese. “Society needs to be protected from violent offenders and those who would commit serious crimes. However, we do not need to fill our prison beds with non-violent offenders and minor drug offenders.
“The objective of our criminal justice system should be reform and rehabilitation so that individuals can return to society as productive citizens. This legislation takes a big step in the right direction by emphasizing alternative to incarceration and by providing judges more discretion in sentencing,” he added

“HB 585 will lead to tremendous improvement in the criminal justice system but it is just a beginning. For example, the law will significantly expand eligibility for drug courts but the funding for the expansion has not been provided.  Despite a significant increase in funds for drug courts in the Administrative Office of the Courts appropriation, from $4 million to nearly $8 million, the estimated cost of full implementation is $11 million,” said Andre de Gruy, a member of the Criminal Justice Task Force which wrote the bill. He said while more work needs to be done, this bill includes the ability to do that because it established a follow-up task force to measure outcomes.

“Another area that will need significant improvements is re-entry programs. With people transitioning from prison to the ‘free-world’ there will need to be services to help them adjust to their new circumstances. One of the best provisions of HB 585 is the establishment of an oversight task force to monitor its implementation,” said de Gruy, who is also Catholic.

At CDC, advocates explained that Mississippi has the nation’s second highest rate of incarceration, but there is no proof this practice lowers crime rates or recidivism. De Gruy said many of the reforms lined up with the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops’ 2000 statement “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective,” calling for restorative justice that seeks to recognize that “the dignity of the human person applies to both victim and offender.”

He said the task force looked at research-based alternatives to just putting people in jail with hopes of bringing restorative justice into the system. Restorative justice seeks to heal communities and not just punish offenders.

House bill 1400 bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless a woman’s life is in danger, the pregnancy will permanently injure her or if the baby has an abnormality which would make it unable to survive. This brings Mississippi in line with most other states in the Southeast with similar bans, including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. Some of those bans are being challenged.

There is only one abortion clinic left in the state, Jackson-based Women’s Health Organization, and the clinic owner told the Associated Press her clinic does not provide abortions after 16 weeks of pregnancy so it would not be affected by the ban. That clinic is already involved in a court battle challenging a 2012 law intended to close it by requiring all doctors practicing there to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. HB 1400 is awaiting the governor’s signature and should take effect July 1.

“Mississippi is overwhelmingly pro-life. Like most people in our country, Catholics and non-Catholics in Mississippi find late term abortions particularly abhorrent. I am glad this legislation provides some limit to this terrible practice and provides additional protection to the unborn,” said Msgr. of the legislation.

A bill that may require welfare recipients to take drug tests has drawn criticism from advocates for the poor. House Bill 49 requires those who apply for temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) to fill out a questionnaire. Based on that, a person could be ordered to take a drug test. Those who fail the test will be offered treatment before they can receive their aid and will have to undergo a second test after treatment.
Supporters say the bill, already signed by the governor, will strengthen communities by helping those who may need treatment become better parents. Opponents, including Rims Barber, civil rights advocate and head of the Mississippi Human Services Coalition, said this measure will actually discourage people from getting help and unfairly targets the poor.

“There was no evidence that welfare recipients are more likely to use drugs than any other part of our society, and nothing that showed that the state knows how to properly screen and treat people for addiction. What we end up with is a system that makes people feel guilty for even applying,” wrote Barber in his annual legislative roundup. Catholic Charities also spoke out against the measure.

One key issue that did not make the agenda, Medicaid expansion. It failed in last year’s session after much public debate. Advocates tried to bring up expansion again, arguing that it would bring better jobs and economic stimulus to the state, but lawmakers never brought forward a bill in this session. Advocates say they will continue to talk about the issue.

Although the legislature did raise the eligibility limit to allow some students to attend college, advocates at the Mississippi Economic Policy Center said the increase will only apply to about 500 students and they will continue to push for more opportunities for more Mississippians to get higher education.
In a separate, but related issue, Catholic Charities was part of a group that went to the Capitol to speak with lawmakers about allowing deferred action students, who were brought to the United States as children, to take advantage of in-state tuition at institutions of higher learning.

Monique Davis, director of the Office of Parish Based Ministries, pointed out that these students are considered residents in public elementary and in high schools. Lawmakers told Catholic Charities and immigration representatives they will consider commissioning a study on the issue. Davis said she is hopeful.

Davis said she and her staff are already at work on Catholic Day at the Capitol for 2015. They are considering some format changes to make it easier for people to attend and are working on building stronger relationships with all the lawmakers, but particularly the dozen Catholic representatives.