By Isabelle Taft
Abortion will likely become illegal in Mississippi in almost all cases within the next few weeks.
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion, Mississippi’s 2007 trigger law looks set to take effect. The law permits abortions only when the mother’s life is at risk or when the pregnancy resulted from a rape that has been reported to law enforcement.
The trigger law takes effect 10 days after the attorney general issues a determination that Roe has been overturned. For the first time in 50 years, it will be nearly impossible to obtain a legal abortion in the state of Mississippi.
In the days after the leak of a draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in May, Attorney General Lynn Fitch said she would wait for the final ruling before making such a determination.
But with Fitch touting her role as the state leader who asked the court to overturn Roe, there’s little question that the determination will come soon.
Diane Derzis, the owner of Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, the facility at the center of the Dobbs case, has said it will close. She plans to open a new clinic in Las Cruces, New Mexico, about an hour from El Paso.
In 2019, the state passed a law banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy – before many people know they are pregnant. That law contains no exception for people who have been raped, meaning victims would have an extremely narrow window during which they could obtain an abortion.
But advocates are determined to maintain access to the procedure, which about 5,000 Mississippians obtained in 2020, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.
The rate of abortions in Mississippi was 4.3 abortions occurring in the state per 1,000 reproductive-age women in 2017– one of the lowest in the country. But the rate of Mississippians receiving abortions was 8.3 per 1,000 reproductive-age women, according to the Guttmacher Institute, indicating that many Mississippians have already been seeking abortions out of state. (The national rate was 11.4 per 1,000 reproductive-age women in 2019.)
The trigger law and fetal heartbeat ban apply to all forms of abortion, including medication abortions that the World Health Organization says can safely end a pregnany up to 12 weeks. Pro-life lawmakers see a need for stricter laws against the pills, which can relatively easily be obtained online for about $100 in many cases.
Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, previously told Mississippi Today that legislation specific to medication abortion could direct law enforcement to focus on the issue, perhaps with funding to support enforcement efforts.
But reproductive rights advocates and many legal experts say it will be nearly impossible to keep medication abortion out of the state, given that state police can’t search people’s mail. Local abortion rights activists vow to help maintain access to the pills.
“We are going to do it right under their noses, and they won’t know, or they will know it, but they’re not going to be able to prove it,” said Michelle Colón, executive director of SHERo Mississippi, a nonprofit that aims to promote leadership among Black women and girls in the state.
Medication abortions already accounted for the majority of abortions performed at Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Abortion funds in the state and across the country also plan to continue raising money to help people pay to travel out of state for the procedure. For many Mississippians, the closest place to obtain a legal abortion will be southern Illinois. Every neighboring state is also set to ban abortion in almost all cases.
CHOICES: Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, a clinic that is more accessible for many north Mississippians than the Jackson clinic, has announced plans to set up a new location in Carbondale, Illinois – a six-hour drive from Jackson.
In the days after the leak of Alito’s draft opinion, Gov. Tate Reeves appeared on several national television programs and claimed Mississippi would focus on “helping those moms that maybe have an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.”
He also declined to rule out prohibitions on certain forms of contraceptives, like Plan B and IUDs. He later said he is “not interested in banning contraceptives” but refused to answer a question from Mississippi Today about what, exactly, he considers to be a contraceptive.
Republican leaders have offered few proposals to address the state’s abysmal infant and maternal health outcomes. This year, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, killed a Republican-led proposal to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months after childbirth.
Mississippi has the country’s highest infant mortality rate and one of the country’s highest pre-term birth rates. Its maternal mortality rate is higher than the national average, which is the highest in the developed world.
Black women in Mississippi are about three times as likely as white women to die of pregnancy-related complications.
The Legislature recently passed a bill that will provide a $3.5 million tax credit for crisis pregnancy centers, loosely regulated nonprofits that offer counseling and resources for pregnant women but which sometimes peddle inaccurate information about abortion.
Laura Knight, president of the advocacy group Pro-Life Mississippi, said in an email to Mississippi Today that that legislation was “one small step” toward addressing the state’s high infant mortality rate.
“As a registered nurse, when I look at the data, it seems to me that a very complex set of factors – one of them being that we also have the highest rate of out-of-wedlock births – contribute to this problem,” she said of infant deaths in Mississippi. “There is not going to be a simple solution.”
Knight also said Mississippi’s maternal mortality rate is “already very low.”
“According to the CDC, the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age is unintentional accidents, followed by cancer and heart disease,” she wrote. “It seems we’d want to concentrate our efforts on those problem areas.”