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Strict abortion laws feared across U.S. South

File photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, center, signs legislation in Atlanta, banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected on May 7.

The Associated Press If a new Mississippi law survives a court challenge, it will be nearly impossible for most pregnant women to get an abortion there.

Or, potentially, in neighboring Louisiana. Or Alabama. Or Georgia.

The Louisiana legislature is halfway toward passing a law — like the ones enacted in Mississippi and Georgia — that will ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they’re pregnant. Alabama is on the cusp of approving an even more restrictive bill.

State governments are on a course to virtually eliminate abortion access in large chunks of the Deep South and Midwest. Ohio and Kentucky also have passed heartbeat laws; Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature is considering one.

Their hope is that a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court will approve, spelling the end of the constitutional right to abortion.

“For pro-life folks, these are huge victories,” said Sue Liebel, state director for the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion advocacy group. “And I think they’re indicative of the momentum and excitement and the hope that’s happening with changes in the Supreme Court and having such a pro-life president.”

For abortion rights supporters, meanwhile, the trend is ominous. Said Diane Derzis, owner of Mississippi’s sole abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization: “I think it’s certainly more dire than it ever has been. They smell blood and that’s why they’re doing this.”

Already, Mississippi mandates a 24-hour wait between an in-person consultation. That means women must make at least two trips to her clinic, often traveling long distances.

Other states have passed similar, incremental laws restricting abortion in recent years, and aside from Mississippi, five states have just one clinic — Kentucky, Missouri, North and South Dakota, and West Virginia. But the latest efforts to bar the procedure represent the largest assault on abortion rights in decades.

Lawmakers sponsoring the bans have made it clear their goal is to spark court challenges in hopes of ultimately overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

Those challenges have begun. Derzis’ attorneys are scheduled to go before a judge on May 21, seeking to prevent Mississippi’s heartbeat law from taking effect July 1.

A judge in Kentucky blocked enforcement of that state’s heartbeat ban after the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of the clinic in Louisville.

Similar legal action is expected before bans can take effect in Ohio and Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the latest heartbeat bill into law Tuesday. Kemp said he welcomed the fight, vowing: “We will not back down.”

Georgia’s ban doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1. But the impact was immediate.

An abortion clinic operated by The Women’s Centers in Atlanta began receiving anxious calls from patients soon after Kemp signed the law. Many callers had plans to travel from outside the state for abortions. Georgia’s heartbeat ban would have a wider impact because the state has 17 abortion clinics — more than the combined total in the other four Southern states that have passed or are considering bans.

“On a typical day we will see people from North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina — all over the region,” said Dr. Lisa Haddad, the Atlanta clinic’s medical director. “And my thought is we’re not going to see those people coming here because they assume it’s already illegal in Georgia.”

Dr. Ernest Marshall, cofounder of Kentucky’s last remaining abortion clinic in Louisville, said in an email that banning abortions before most women know they’re pregnant would “have a disproportionate impact on poor women and communities of color throughout the South.”

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