Mississippi Judge Refuses to be Gaslit about State's History in Abortion Rights CaseBreaking News
tags: racism, Roe v. Wade, abortion, Supreme Court, African American history, Mississippi
Of all the arguments that animate the anti-abortion cause, two stand out as particularly far-fetched: that banning abortion protects women’s health and shields African Americans from genocide. Yet for years, these arguments have driven debates over state laws, served as justifications for court decisions upholding those laws, and even appeared on billboards warning women in predominantly Black communities not to kill their babies. Three years ago, Mississippi lawmakers prohibited almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy to save women, they said, from serious “medical, emotional, and psychological” damage.
It has taken a federal judge to call out these claims for what they surely are: “pure gaslighting.”
Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, likely the most consequential abortion case in three decades. The case began as a challenge to the Mississippi abortion ban, and in 2018 landed before Carlton Reeves, an African American judge whose legal opinions—especially this one—are rich in history and disarmingly honest. Reeves struck down the law, as precedents like the 1973 landmark abortion decision, Roe v. Wade, compelled him to do, but then lambasted the Mississippi legislature for trying to justify the ban with reasons that he believed were transparently dishonest.
“Its leaders are proud to challenge Roe,” he wrote, “but choose not to lift a finger to address the tragedies lurking on the other side of the delivery room.” I spoke with Reeves recently, and his opinions out of court are as candid as the ones he delivers from chambers and the bench. “Judges are heroes,” he told me. “But for them I would not be in the position that I am or had the experiences that I did. They have the capacity to breathe life into our rights.”
Almost any opinion on abortion would have attracted national attention, yet Reeves’s opinion has stirred a striking amount of controversy at every step of the Dobbs case’s journey. It has drawn an appeals-court rebuke as “deeply disquieting” and a legal brief from 18 states urging the Supreme Court to “condemn” the judge’s “rhetoric.” That rhetoric, though, has put before the justices issues that could shape the outcome of Dobbs, the fate of Roe, the response of states to the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the struggle between judges and legislators to determine the law of the land.
Under current law, Dobbs is an easy case. In Roe and, almost two decades later, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court ruled that states cannot ban abortions before “viability” of the fetus—about 23 to 24 weeks—making Mississippi’s 15-week cutoff clearly unconstitutional. Reeves ruled as much and then asked an obvious question: “So, why are we here?”
Rejecting sophistry from the state’s legislators that the ban wasn’t really a “ban,” Reeves revealed the truth as he saw it: The state passed a law “it knew was unconstitutional to endorse a decades-long campaign … to ask the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.” He then scolded the lawmakers for pretending to care about women’s health and the well-being of the unborn and people of color while having the nation’s highest infant-mortality rate, tolerating “alarming” poverty and maternal-death rates, and curtailing health-care programs such as Medicaid. He accused legislators of perpetuating “the old Mississippi,” the one that didn’t allow women to serve on juries until 1968, the one that systematically sterilized Black women—getting a “Mississippi appendectomy,” it was called—and the one that, in 1984, became the last state to guarantee women the right to vote. He recounted Mississippi’s long history of denying its citizens’ constitutional rights with segregated schools, prohibitions on same-sex marriage, and a “secret intelligence arm” that enforced racial discrimination. Far from helping women and minorities, Reeves wrote, the state still seemed “bent on controlling” them.
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