JACKSON, Miss. -- A federal judge indicated Tuesday that he is likely to block a Mississippi law that will ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
The new law puts a cutoff point for abortion at about six weeks, when many women may not yet know they're pregnant.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves heard arguments about a request from the state's only abortion clinic, which wants him to block the law from taking effect July 1, as scheduled. Reeves is the same judge who ruled last year that Mississippi's 15-week ban is unconstitutional because it would prohibit access to abortion before a fetus could survive outside the pregnant woman's body. Viability is generally considered to be about 23 or 24 weeks.
In an indication of which way he is leaning on the request to block the new law, Reeves asked attorneys: "Doesn't it boil down to: Six is less than 15?"
Mississippi is one of several states enacting abortion restrictions this year in hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court, with new conservative justices, will reevaluate and maybe overturn its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
Reeves criticized Mississippi lawmakers for passing an earlier ban after he struck down the one at 15 weeks.
"It sure smacks of defiance to this court," he said.
The state is appealing Reeves' ruling on the 15-week ban, and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed the new law in March. The state's only abortion clinic, Jackson Women's Health Organization, quickly sued the state.
Reeves said he would decide soon on the request to block the law, but did not indicate when he would issue a ruling.
Governors in Kentucky, Ohio and Georgia have signed bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. Alabama's governor signed a measure making abortion a felony in nearly all cases.
The Mississippi law says physicians who perform abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected could face revocation of their state medical licenses. It also says abortions could be allowed after a fetal heartbeat is found if a pregnancy endangers a woman's life or one of her major bodily functions. Senators rejected an amendment that would have allowed exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.
Hillary Schneller, an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the Mississippi law is "clearly unconstitutional" because it bans abortion before viability.
If the law were to take effect, "Women will be forced to leave the state to obtain legal abortions ... or will be forced to remain pregnant against their will," Schneller said.
Mississippi Special Assistant Attorney General Paul Barnes said the new law is not an outright ban on abortion but a limitation on when the procedure can be done.
"When a fetal heartbeat is detected, our position is it is constitutional" to prohibit abortion, Barnes said. He also said the state respectfully disagrees with Reeves' ruling on the 15-week ban.
If Reeves temporarily blocks the new Mississippi law, he would hear arguments later on the larger question of constitutionality.
Reeves asked Barnes whether a 10- or 11-year-old girl who is impregnated by rape would have to carry the pregnancy to full term if she waited too long to tell anyone what had happened to her. Barnes said he did not know whether a family court judge would allow the child to have an abortion after the fetal heartbeat is found. Barnes said the man who impregnated the girl could be charged with capital rape.
Reeves said legislators were aware the law did not allow exceptions for rape or incest. Barnes said he did not know if they knew, and Reeves responded: "Well, they speak through their statute."
After the court hearing, more than 100 abortion-rights supporters rallied outside the state Capitol in downtown Jackson less than a mile from the federal courthouse. They chanted: "We won't go back" and "My body, my choice."
Zakiya Summers of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi said outlawing abortion will not get rid of the procedure but will make it more dangerous.
"The decision whether to become a parent is in the hands of those who are involved. It is not the politicians' decision to make," Summers said. "Bodies do not belong to the government."
After the rally, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves held a news conference at a church in the Jackson suburb of Byram with pastors and others who oppose abortion. Tate Reeves, no relation to the federal judge, said he will continue to try to restrict abortion if he is elected governor this year.
"Mississippi is overwhelmingly pro-life," Tate Reeves said. "And we need a governor that will be overwhelmingly pro-life."