JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – A Mississippi Senate chairman on Thursday killed a bill that could have led to a homicide criminal prosecution for anyone performing an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is found.
Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the bill is unconstitutional because lawmakers are limited in what they can do to restrict abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy under Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion.
"I have always voted for and supported every restriction on abortion that was constitutional," Bryan said in an interview. "However, this is clearly not constitutional, and it would serve us no purpose to pass it."
The issue is not expected to come up again before the four-month legislative session ends in early May.
Because a fetal heartbeat can often be found in the early weeks of pregnancy, supporters of the bill said it could have severely limited access to abortion if it had become law. Even if the bill had become law, Bryan said it would have faced a court challenge.
"Someone would go to court and get an injunction, and it would never take effect," Bryan said.
Senate Bill 2771 originally was intended to add 10 years to the maximum penalty for an adult convicted of manslaughter in the killing of a child. The current maximum sentence for manslaughter is 20 years. The bill would have increased that to 30 years if the killer is at least 21 and the victim is younger than 18.
The House on April 10 amended the bill to say a child-homicide charge could be brought against anyone who does an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, with a penalty of up to 30 years in prison for a conviction. The bill still would have allowed elective abortions if no fetal heartbeat is found, or in cases of alleged rape or incest, or if the pregnant woman's life is in danger.
Thursday was the final day for the House and Senate to consider changes the opposite chamber had made to general bills. The bill died because Bryan didn't bring it up for a Senate vote before the deadline.
Earlier this session, Bryan killed two bills that would have put new restrictions on abortion. House Bill 1196 would have prohibited abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detectable, unless the woman's health was at risk. House Bill 790 would have regulated the use of the abortion-inducing drug RU-486 by requiring the prescribing physician to be in the room when the woman took it. Bryan chose not to bring them up for a vote in his committee before an April 3 deadline.
Terri Herring of Madison, national director of Pro Life America Network, criticized Bryan for killing the bills. She also said Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves was responsible for the death of the bills for two reasons: Reeves named Bryan chairman of Judiciary B and sent the abortion-restriction bills to Bryan's committee.
"The Senate leadership has guarded the floor like they would the 'hen house' – the fear is that given the opportunity our senators would pass heartbeat, in a heartbeat," Herring said in a written statement Thursday.
In last November's general election, 58 percent of Mississippi voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have defined life as beginning when a human egg is fertilized.
During the April 10 House debate, House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, persuaded a majority of members to support his amendment to allow criminal prosecution of anyone doing an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. Gipson told House members they faced "the choice of life versus death" with the amendment. Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, compared Gipson's "heartbeat" proposal to the failed ballot initiative and said it was being disrespectful to try to push his idea into law.
The bill that died Thursday was known as "Karen's Law" in honor of a Jones County teenager who was kidnapped, raped and killed in 1987, said its sponsor, Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville. He said the killer of Karen Knott pleaded guilty to manslaughter. McDaniel said he wanted to give judges the option to set sentences of longer than 20 years for people for a manslaughter conviction if the victim is a minor.
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