abortion

Wicker weighs in on national abortion ban proposal

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Sen. Wicker the only Mississippi Republican to weigh in on national abortion ban proposal

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker was the only member of Mississippi’s Republican congressional delegation to respond to questions this week about a proposal to impose a nationwide ban on abortions after 15 weeks.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, recently proposed the 15-week ban in the aftermath of the overturning the national right to an in June in a watershed case from Mississippi. The ruling — Dobbs v. — meant the decision on whether to allow or to restrict abortions would be for each individual state to make.

The fact that the state of Mississippi is in a real sense ground zero for the current abortion debate, thanks to the Dobbs case, makes the comments of the state’s congressional delegation relevant.

But were all silent — except for Wicker.

“The Senate Republican conference is unified in seeking as many pro-life protections as possible for all Americans, but this goal has historically shown to be most effectively achieved when legislated at the local level,” Wicker said in a statement.

Graham, of course, is touting national legislation on abortion.

It would be fair to say that some Republican candidates are backtracking on their position on abortion as the November midterm elections approach. Polls in many states, including Mississippi, indicate that the Supreme Court action overturning , which provided the national right to an abortion, might not be as popular as some conservatives thought it would be. Voters in conservative Kansas rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have made it easier for the Legislature to ban abortion.

That vote was a wake-up call for many.

In May before the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said that it was “possible” that a Republican-majority Senate might vote next year on legislation to place a federal ban on abortions.

But more recently as McConnell is trying to elect enough Republicans in November to capture a Senate majority, he’s changed his tune.

Speaking on Graham’s proposal for a national 15-week ban, McConnell said, “You’ll have to ask him about it. In terms of scheduling, I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level.”

It is important to note that under Graham’s proposal there would be a 15-week national ban but states that chose to have stricter bans, like Mississippi, would not be prevented from doing so. Mississippi bans all abortions except in the case of rape and to preserve the life of the mother. In addition, Mississippi has another law that bans abortions after six weeks except in cases of medical emergency.

Wicker pointed out Mississippi has led the way in terms of anti-abortion advocacy.

“I hope that Mississippi’s strong laws defending the unborn can serve as a model for my colleagues and help them make a difference in their respective states,” Wicker said. “We cannot allow partisan spin to undermine our determination to fight for the rights of the unborn, including at the federal level.”

It is fair to say that Wicker was a groundbreaker in terms of passing laws to restrict abortion in Mississippi. As a state senator representing Lee and Pontotoc counties in northeast Mississippi in the late 1980s and early 90s, he was one of the leaders in passing legislation enacting a 24-hour waiting period on having an abortion and imposing additional restrictions on abortion clinics.

At that time, few states were passing such legislation.

While Wicker was the only one of the five Republicans in the congressional delegation to comment on the Graham bill, all of them in the past have expressed strong anti-abortion views. Mississippi’s only Democrat in the congressional delegation – Bennie Thompson – voted for a bill that essentially would have restored the Roe v. Wade standards. That bill passed the U.S. House, but was blocked by Senate Republicans.

The issue of abortion, no doubt, will be a major issue in the November elections. Polls indicate that the issue of abortion could provide Democrats a boost. But in Mississippi abortion is not expected to be a major issue.

Wicker and the state’s other U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith are not up for re-election this year. The three House incumbents — Michael Guest of the 3rd, Trent of the 1st and Thompson of the 2nd — are all heavy favorites and it is doubtful that their position on abortion will change those odds much.

In the 4th District, Republican Mike Ezell, who defeated incumbent Steven Palazzo in the Republican primary, is also anti-abortion.

The question is will Republicans vote on a national ban on the combustible issue if they capture the House and Senate this November.

Thus far, their position has been fluid.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Local activists push back on proposed plans to privatize city water system

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‘What’s next, the air?’ Local activists push back on proposed plans to privatize city water system

At the southwest entrance to the Metrocenter Mall on Saturday, Sept. 3 –  the sixth day of Jackson’s current water crisis – shards of glass cluttered the sidewalk where doors used to be. Inside, a city worker drove a green forklift which left tracks on the marble floor and beige carpet as he reorganized hundreds of pallets of donated water one by one. 

This abandoned mall, where the primary tenants are and water department, has in recent weeks become the nexus of a city-wide water distribution effort called the Rapid Response Coalition, a partnership between the City of Jackson and volunteers with 30-plus advocacy organizations.

Water donated from across the country is brought here in 18-wheelers and then distributed early each morning to six coalition-run sites in neighborhoods in south and west Jackson, predominantly Black and poorer parts of the city more affected by the water crisis. 

Danyelle Holmes, a member of the Poor People’s Campaign, has spent nearly every day outside at the mall, helping to manage the massive distribution effort that the coalition estimates has put more than an 1.2 million bottles of water into the hands of Jacksonians for free. 

She said the goal is to help the city with its distribution effort and to fill gaps in the state’s response. 

“We’ve seen a lack of response from our government – our state government leadership, and so we decided two years ago when the pandemic hit that we weren’t going to wait on anyone to come and save us,” Holmes said. “So it’s our goal and it’s our mission to save ourselves.” 

READ MOREMississippi Today’s complete coverage of the Jackson water crisis

Two and a half weeks into the current water crisis, the coalition has scaled back operations as the city and state have restored the water pressure at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant and turned attention to addressing the boil water notice. This week, only two coalition sites – Westland Plaza and Oak Forest Community Center – are still open daily, with the rest operating just two days a week. Volunteers are prioritizing home delivery, Holmes said. 

Now, the coalition is shifting focus to drawing up demands – tentatively scheduled to be released this week – for a long-term solution to the water crisis. They hope to pressure state leaders to enact solutions they view as more equitable.

There are currently a handful of proposals on the table to fix Jackson’s water system, but every option reportedly entails Jackson ceding some control of its water system to an outside party, be it a state entity or commission, a regional authority, or a private company. 

To many activists, the state and to some extent the federal government bear responsibility for the water crisis, not the city. Any move that infringes on Jackson’s control of its water system seems to suggest the city is responsible for the crisis – a notion they attribute to racism. They emphasize that the water crisis would not have happened without white lawmakers withholding state funding. 

“We’ve only had Black leaders for the last two or three terms, so how can you blame this divestment on the fact that we have Black leadership?” asked Lorena Quiroz, the executive director of the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity.

One proposal in particular – privatization – has been widely condemned by activists. State leaders have suggested that the city could lease its water system to a private company that would manage operations. The second week of the crisis, Lumumba said the city had been in talks to contract out operations and management.

When some Jacksonians hear the word “privatization,” though, they picture a for-profit company outright purchasing the water system.

Private water systems come at an increased cost to customers, though research has shown they are less likely to violate federal clean drinking-water laws than public utilities. 

Private water systems can also be less accountable to the public, which some activists said could be problematic at a time when trust needs to be restored in the system. 

“The thing with privatization is they control what they think is best for us,” said Imani Olugbala, a member of Cooperation Jackson. “If it’s government-led, we have some oversight. If it’s exclusively for profit, we have to pay the price for water, and it’s going to be whatever they say, because that’s the capitalist construction. What’s next, the air?”

Many also noted it’s ironic that state leaders who ignored Jackson’s water crisis get to decide the response. 

“I would’ve liked to see swifter movement on the state-level because it seemed like it was weeks before we heard anything from Gov. Reeves,” said Blaise Adams, a pre-law student at Tougaloo College who was passing out water at IAJE’s pick-up site. “Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been proactively worked on.” 

Quiroz questioned if Jackson’s water system can ever be truly fixed in a stratified, capitalist

“Water should be free. We shouldn’t have to pay for water,” she said. “That should be something that’s provided by the fucking state.” 

The work of distributing free water might not sound radical during a crisis, but to Holmes and other members of the Rapid Response Coalition, it is a model for how another, better society could function. 

Since the water emergency started, members of the coalition have held an 8 a.m. Zoom call to discuss plans for the day. They decide collectively how to spread out their resources – how much water should be allocated to each of the six pick-up sites based on the amount distributed the day before and who should respond to emergency calls the city’s 311 line receives from Jacksonians who need water.

The approach to activism is known as “mutual aid,” in which people in a community provide resources that the government failed to in a way that aims to not recreate systematic disparities. A term coined by a famous anarchist, mutual aid also aims to create social change by harnessing the collective work to achieve a political end. 

“We create our own system while at the same time pushing to change the current systems that fail people,” said Lea Campbell, the founding president of the climate-justice organization Mississippi Rising Coalition at IAJE’s site on the corner of Fortification and N West Street.

That Saturday morning – the same day Holmes was at the Metrocenter Mall – about 17 volunteers stood between cases of bottled water on the sidewalk. An occasional hitch like the backdoor of a Honda minivan closing slowly held up the line.

Some members donned red to show they were members of the local Democratic Socialist of America chapter; others, college students from Tougaloo and Oxford, wore shirts that said “DO GOOD” and “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” 

“We got everybody in the house,” Quiroz said. She supervised the line with the attitude of a school teacher (she used to be one) overseeing car pick-up, inviting passersby who stopped to get some water to park their cars and volunteer. 

It’s important for organizations like IAJE to step up during disasters, Quiroz said, because many people can’t afford pricey and personal solutions like buying their own water or installing filtration systems. 

“It’s like the decision,” she said. “Folks that have the money can have access to as , they just have to get in their car and drive.” 

It can be scrappy work. At the Metrocenter Mall, the coalition’s base of operations was right next to a distribution site run by the . Stocked with non-potable water, porta-potties, military-style forklifts and dozens of uniformed National Guardsmen, ’s site looked very different from the coalition’s. 

“The National Guard has far more money than we do, the state has far more resources, so we can’t begin to compete,” Holmes said. “That’s comparing apples to oranges.” 

As Holmes talked with Mississippi Today, about a dozen volunteers sat on empty wooden pallets, waiting for the workers inside the mall to finish unloading an 18-wheeler of water. At one point, a city water department employee tried to drive a forklift even though she had no experience. 

Kadin Love, an organizer with Black Youth Project 100, said he thinks the solution to the crisis is better state and local representation for Black Mississippians that will only be achieved if activists from across the country invest time and money in the state at a level that hasn’t been seen since Freedom Summer. 

“Money isn’t poured down here, folks don’t come down here to help us organize,” he said. “We’ve had to address our own issues systematically since basically 1964.” 

His experience this past year watching national go ignored as it unfolded in Jackson has not exactly left him feeling optimistic. 

“Mississippi was the epicenter of the fight for abortion, but we didn’t see millions of people down here organizing,” he said. “In Jackson, at some of our largest protests we max out at maybe 200, 300 people.” 

“Why didn’t we have any support beforehand?” he continued. “Why are we the last line of defense?” 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Doctors, advocates worry rape victims won’t have abortion access

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Can rape victims access abortion in Mississippi? Doctors, advocates say no.

Mississippi law theoretically allows rape victims access to abortion, an exemption state leaders tout. But the doctors and advocates who work with victims say in reality, that access is almost nonexistent.

Since the overruled Roe v. Wade, allowing Mississippi’s 2007 trigger ban to take effect in July, abortion has been legal in the state in only two cases: when necessary to save the life of the mother and when a pregnancy resulted from a rape that has been reported to law enforcement. 

“It does in fact have an exception for rape and it has an exception for life of the mother,” Gov. Tate Reeves said in a television appearance earlier this year. “I think that there’s no doubt that there are instances, there are individuals that certainly push for exceptions, and that’s okay.”

But doctors told Mississippi Today that they’re not aware of anyone in the state who will provide the procedure for rape victims because of concerns about potential legal consequences and logistical hurdles. 

Mississippi Today surveyed more than 20 hospitals and hospital chains in the state about whether they would provide legal abortions to people who have reported a rape to law enforcement. Some of the state’s biggest hospitals – including the and North Mississippi Health Services – refused to comment at all. 

Of those that responded, none said that its doctors would provide abortions for people who had reported a rape to law enforcement.

“I don’t think people in Mississippi can have comfort around, ‘Oh, if I’m raped, I will have access,’” one Jackson-area OB/GYN told Mississippi Today, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the physician did not have permission from their employer to talk to the media. “You probably won’t. You’ll have to find someone to do it that includes a hospital with the whole team there supporting that, and that’s much more difficult.”

A medical professional could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of providing an illegal abortion. Because for years all of the state’s elective abortions – which includes all procedures that are not medically necessary – took place at Mississippi’s sole abortion clinic, many OB/GYNs around the state lack the training to perform the procedure. 

That means victims of sexual violence will likely be forced to travel hours away from home to end a pregnancy that resulted from rape. 

Reeves’ office did not respond to a request for comment for the story. 

Before Mississippi’s trigger ban took effect, the state’s sole abortion clinic, the , provided abortions for rape victims. The clinic is now closed.

Diane Derzis, the clinic’s owner, said most of the time clinic staff did not know when they were serving a patient who had been raped. But a few times a year, law enforcement came to the clinic to pick up fetal remains, which could be used to gather DNA evidence to identify an assailant.

Derzis said she doesn’t believe anyone in Mississippi will provide abortions for people who have reported a rape.

“They’re screwed,” she said of rape victims. “Plain and simple. No one is going to take the responsibility or the liability … People are scared to , not just there but all over the country about what they can and can’t do. And they’re just not going to be willing to put themselves or their licenses on the line.”

Even before Dobbs, Mississippi doctors were wary of providing abortions. The Pink House exclusively employed out-of-state OB/GYNs who flew in monthly for a few days at a time. 

Anti-abortion activists protested at the homes of Mississippi-based abortion providers. 

“We go to the neighborhoods and tell everybody in the neighborhood what they do,” long-time anti-abortion activist David Lane told Mississippi Today in June. “They don’t like that. But if it’ll get rid of them, and it’s legal, we’ll do it.”

It’s unlikely that any Mississippi doctors who do provide legal abortions will talk publicly about it – both for fear of legal action and to avoid attracting anti-abortion activists. 

Rob McDuff, an attorney at the , which represented the clinic before it closed this summer, said he does not expect to see prosecutions of medical providers for performing abortions under the law’s exceptions. 

“I fully expect that state officials will allow professionals to use their best judgment in the difficult situations they will encounter, and I don’t think those doctors and nurses will be prosecuted,” he said. “If any are, we stand ready to defend them without charge, just as we will defend any others who are arrested for abortion-related crimes.”

Mississippi is one of a handful of states that bans abortion but has an exception for rape. There is no exception for incest. 

Michele Goodwin, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and an expert in reproductive rights, said that exceptions for rape and incest can serve a political purpose without actually ensuring victims have access to abortion.

“Lawmakers get to satisfy part of their base that is skeptical about their anti-abortion lawmaking, or they get to say, ‘We put into the law these exceptions,’ hoping that people won’t pay close attention,” Goodwin said. “But if you unpack what that looks like, those burdens are inordinate.”

Now that the Pink House is closed, Mississippians’ nearest options for a legal abortion are in Florida, where it is permitted up to 15 weeks of pregnancy, or southern Illinois, where the town of Carbondale has become an access point for people living in ban states across the South and Midwest. 

When lawmakers added an exception for rape to Mississippi’s pre-Roe abortion ban in 1966, they considered requiring a local judge to first certify that a rape had taken place. But they rejected that idea on the grounds that it embarrasses victims.

The exception now requires victims to file “a formal charge of rape … with an appropriate law enforcement official.”

Forensic nurses told Mississippi Today that they’re also concerned about leaving their patients’ ability to access a medical procedure in the hands of law enforcement.

Nationally, only about a third of sexual assaults are reported to . And only about a sixth of those reports result in arrests. 

In the vast majority of rape cases, the victim knew the assailant, so filing a police report could have life-altering consequences. 

Fear of retaliation, the belief that police won’t help them, and considering the assault a personal matter are among the reasons people choose not to report, according to Department of Justice statistics.

Chance Lovern, a nurse at the Ochsner Rush emergency room in Meridian, said his experience aligns with the national data: Most of the patients he has worked with knew their attacker. 

The sexual assault exams he performs are careful and detail oriented. Patients stand on a sheet to change so any physical evidence can be collected. Nurses document physical injuries like bruises and fractures, and perform vaginal and anal swabs for DNA. At every stage, a patient can ask to stop or skip part of the exam. 

He asks victims if they have contacted the police, but he never urges them to do so.  

“It’s a traumatizing event already,” he said. “It’s going to be their decision in the long run if they want to.”

Alizbeth Eaves, one of the state’s few certified sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE) and the trauma and SANE program manager at Ochsner Rush in Meridian, said the language of the rape exception is also unclear. What constitutes “a formal charge?” Is it simply filing a police report, or does someone have to be charged with the ?

She recently saw a 16-year-old who had been raped by her uncle starting when she was 14 years old. The teenager’s father caught his brother in the act and called the police. But when they arrived, they initially refused to arrest the uncle.

“The investigator says, ‘She’s 16, it’s consensual, there’s nothing we can do,’” Eaves said. 

Eventually, the uncle was arrested on two counts of statutory rape, stemming from previous incidents. But it was easy to imagine the case taking a different turn.

“If she had gotten pregnant from that sexual assault that day, and law enforcement refused to press charges because, quote, ‘She was 16 and [it was] consensual,’ she would have been forced to carry that pregnancy, because a formal rape charge would not have been filed because law enforcement wasn’t going to do that,” Eaves said. 

A Mississippi forensic nurse who spoke on the condition of anonymity also said she routinely sees police demonstrate skepticism and even hostility toward victims. She has heard officers ask victims whether they actually wanted to have sex with their assailants and suggest that they should not have been alone with them. 

After the Supreme Court overturned and Mississippi’s trigger ban took effect, Stephanie Piper, sexual assault program manager at the nonprofit Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence, helped a woman who had become pregnant after unwanted sex get an appointment for an abortion in Florida. Instead of a six-hour round trip drive to Jackson, she had a 10-hour round trip to Tallahassee. 

Stephanie Piper is the sexual assault program manager at the nonprofit Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence, serving victims of sexual violence on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

In that case, the woman knew the man who impregnated her and had previously had consensual sex with him. She had no interest in filing a police report. 

“She was scared if she didn’t have sex with him something worse was going to happen,” Piper said. “In my eyes that’s a sexual assault. If she came forward to law enforcement and said everything I just said, they’re probably not going to go forward with the case.”

Lovern, a native of Philadelphia, Miss., grew up in the Pentecostal church, surrounded by opposition to abortion. His work as a nurse has changed his perspective, introducing him to situations where abortion was medically necessary. And he can see how carrying a pregnancy to term could change a sexual assault victim’s life forever. 

“I’m not saying that they wouldn’t love their child any differently, but it’s always going to bring back a physical presence of that assault,” he said. 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

AG’s office ignores forensic nurses’ questions about Plan B

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Sexual assault nurses asked the AG’s office if Plan B is legal. They never got a response.

Mississippi nurses who take care of sexual assault victims are worried that the state’s ban could force them to stop offering emergency contraception – and they’re not getting any answers from the state’s chief legal officer. 

Months ago, following the Dobbs ruling that allowed an abortion ban to take effect in Mississippi, a group of forensic nurses reached out to Lynn Fitch’s office for guidance. 

Michelle Williams, Fitch’s chief of staff, never answered their questions about abortion laws – including whether emergency contraception was legal.

When pressed by Mississippi Today, Williams said, “You can look at the law. You can decide whether or not it’s legal. But it is.”

Williams said she had responded to the first part of the email that asked about a project to update the state’s rape kits, which she considered “most relevant,” and then thought the conversation was finished. 

The lack of response left the group of sexual assault nurse examiners concerned about potential legal consequences but determined to keep serving their patients. 

“I’m going to continue to provide the emergency contraception as long as we have it available and give the education and resources that I always have,” said Alizbeth Eaves, one of the state’s few certified sexual assault nurse examiners and the trauma and SANE program manager at Ochsner Rush in Meridian. “But I am afraid that I’m going to be told, ‘That was against the law, and you’re in big trouble for it.’”

Through a records request, Mississippi Today obtained an email sent on July 18 by Shalotta Sharp, special projects coordinator at the Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault, listing legal questions forensic nurses have about how the state’s new ban on abortion could affect their work.

Sharp, who has decades of experience as a certified sexual assault nurse examiner and is a long-time leader in the field in Mississippi, asked if emergency contraception is now outlawed. She also wanted clarification as to as whether medical professionals can refer a patient to an abortion provider in another state. 

Alizbeth Eaves, one of Mississippi’s few certified sexual assault nurse examiners, is the trauma and SANE program manager at Ochsner Rush in Meridian.

“We are very thankful for any guidance and direction,” she concluded. “Thank you for your guidance and help!”

Williams responded that same day. She said she was on vacation but had proposed changes to victims compensation rules to review and should get back to Sharp soon. She did not acknowledge the other questions about the abortion law. 

Sharp never heard from Williams after that. She had reached out to the attorney general’s office, she said, because the chief law enforcement officer is responsible for providing clarity about what the law actually requires. 

“We certainly don’t want to be doing anything illegal,” she said. “But we also want what’s best for our patients.”

Mississippi Today told Sharp that Williams said emergency contraception is legal.

“If they’re saying that emergency contraception is not considered abortive, and it’s legal, literally that’s all I want to hear,” she said. 

Under the updated rape kit the Attorney General’s Office produced in collaboration with the Mississippi chapter of the International Association of Forensic Nurses this year, the state continues to reimburse medical providers for “medication treatment for prevention of… pregnancy” for victims of sexual assault, regardless of whether the victim reports to law enforcement. 

Only government entities, like counties, legislators and state agencies, can request official opinions from the attorney general, so Sharp’s email did not constitute a formal opinion request. Williams said the office can’t provide opinions outside that channel and that guidance for medical professionals comes from “any number of boards in the state.”

“We’ve been kind of left on read so to speak,” Eaves said. “It’s very frustrating that you’re going to have a trigger law in place and activate that trigger law without giving clear definitions and guidelines.”

Emergency contraception is recognized as part of the standard of care for victims of sexual assault by organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. A copper intrauterine device is the most effective form and is about 99.9% successful at preventing pregnancy if placed within 120 hours of intercourse. Pills like ella and Plan B are also used in Mississippi hospitals. 

Emergency contraception does not end a pregnancy– generally, it stops ovulation so an egg cannot be fertilized. But sometimes, the treatment can function by stopping a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. 

“Where are we calling conception at?” Eaves said. “Because if we’re talking about when the sperm meets the egg, that could potentially take emergency contraception away.”

Some pro-life organizations consider the medication a form of abortion. The advocacy group Pro-Life Mississippi lists “Morning After Pill” on its website under “Types of Abortion.”

Attorneys general in other states have been willing to publicly clarify that emergency contraception is legal. In Missouri, a spokesperson for the office said state law — which bans abortion except in medical emergencies — did not prohibit Plan B after a local hospital said it would stop providing the medication because the “law is ambiguous.”

Mississippi’s ban on abortion specifies that abortion ends “the pregnancy of a woman known to be pregnant.” During the period when emergency contraception is effective, pregnancy tests do not yet detect pregnancy

Registered nurses practices during a sexual assault examination a training for nurses at St. Dominic in Jackson, Wednesday, April 10, 2019.

Forensic nurses interviewed by Mississippi Today said they are still providing emergency contraception to victims of sexual assault. 

“We’re just prescribing it left and right,” said one nurse, who asked that her name not be used because she did not have permission from her employer to talk to the media.

But she’s worried about the future. 

“That in itself is scary, that they (the Attorney General’s office) won’t just commit to saying, ‘Emergency contraception is okay,’” she said.

Eaves said the stakes of providing emergency contraception now feel higher than ever. If someone becomes pregnant following a rape, she is legally allowed to get an abortion in Mississippi only if “a formal charge of rape has been filed with an appropriate law enforcement official.”

That requirement makes Mississippi’s post-Dobbs abortion ban more restrictive than at almost any point in state history. When lawmakers added an exception to the state’s 1952 abortion ban for rape in 1966, they considered requiring a local chancery judge to first determine that a rape had occurred. But they rejected this idea because it would “require making the case a matter of public record and cause embarrassment to a wronged woman.” 

Now, state leaders appear to have no such concerns. 

Read the forensic nurses’ letter to the Attorney General’s Office:

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Abortion: Gunn announces ‘Commission on Life’ to guide policies

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Gunn announces ‘Commission on Life’ members to guide post-abortion ban policies

House Speaker Philip Gunn on Tuesday announced membership of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who’ve been serving on a “Commission on Life” panel to guide post- ban policies for the House.

Gunn announced he was creating such a commission in June after the ’s ruling on a Mississippi case that overturned Roe vs. Wade abortion rights. He said the ruling would bring “new challenges” for Mississippi to make sure “those who are born have the resources they need.”

Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, suffers from lack of prenatal, postnatal and all other forms of . It also has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation and one of the highest maternal rates. It has for years faced federal court decrees to address its substandard foster care and children’s services system.

In a press release Gunn indicated his new commission has already been working, apparently in private, and has “already identified the following areas of need:”

  • Engaging the faith community. “Churches have a tremendous opportunity to step up and minister to women and children,” Gunn’s release said.
  • Helping pregnancy resource centers. Gunn said the commission wants to further incentivize businesses to help these centers. Early this year, lawmakers approved up to $3 million in tax credits for donations to the more than 30 centers in the state.
  • Increasing access to adoption. Gunn said adoption should be “more readily available and affordable.”
  • Creating jobs for moms. Gunn said job opportunities and better access to childcare should be incentivized.
  • Helping families with challenges. This would focus on help for “those suffering from family breakdown, abuse, drug addiction, homelessness, special needs or other crises.”
  • Cultivating a life-affirming culture. Gunn said he wants to implement policies that “encourage strong marriages, stable families and abstinence.”
  • Improving child support enforcement. This is aimed at holding non-custodial parents more accountable.
  • Improving foster care. Gunn said the commission wants more effective child protection and foster care in Mississippi.

Gunn said the commission is guided by principles that families are best for children; the private sector, churches and non-profits “must step forward to answer the need;” and “government must stay in its lane and up its game,” but expanding government is not the best way to meet challenges.

Members of Gunn’s commission are: Reps. Otis Anthony, D-Sunflower; Cedric Burnett, D-Tunica; Angela Cockerham, I-Amite; Kevin Felsher, R-; Jill Ford, R-Madison; Debra Gibbs, D-Jackson; Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg; Dana Underwood McLean, R-Columbus; Sam Mims, R-McComb and Lee Yancey, R-Brandon.

Gunn said the commission is considering legislation such as expanding tax credits for crisis pregnancy centers, making adoption easier and incentivizing employers to “employ mothers during and after their pregnancy.”

Gunn’s release said, “We will provide the public with updates as we develop more specific proposals.”

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has created a nine-member  “Senate Study Group on Women, Children and Families” tasked with guiding policy. The Senate panel has scheduled four public hearings beginning later this month, and has asked for written input from the public.

The Senate group will hold hearings at the Capitol on Sept. 27 and 28, and on Oct. 25 and 26. The hearings will be webcast, archived and open to the public. The public is invited to email written testimony to WCFStudyGroup@senate.ms.gov. The comments will be presented to the full committee.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

JSU: Jackson water crisis highlights limitation of government

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‘The wall people are running into’: For JSU student, city water crisis highlights limitation of government

Maisie Brown pulled her aunt’s army green Ford Edge onto I-55, heading north past the port-a-potties outside the Hilton on County Line Road. 

The Jackson State University junior was on a mission last Wednesday – two days after Gov. Tate Reeves declared a water emergency in Jackson – to deliver water to elderly and disabled people in the capital city. Her first stop was Academy Sports and Outdoors, a retailer in the plush city of Madison, to pick up nearly two dozen 24-packs of bottled water. 

That Brown had to trek outside the city limits to buy water is indicative of one of the many systemic issues at the heart of Jackson’s water crisis: The whiter, wealthier suburbs – recipients of population growth post-integration – aren’t dealing with the same crisis today.

“People look down on Jackson, but give it a decade,” Brown said before applying a light-pink shade of Victoria’s Secret lip gloss. “This is going to be everyone’s reality soon.” 

Like most people from the Jackson-metro area, Brown was rarely fazed by the city’s boil water notices, as typical as the crater-like potholes. The 22-year-old grew up seeing stacks of plastic water jugs in her grandparents’ house off State Street – “not because they like to drink water like a fish,” she said, “but sometimes you never know when it’s going to be on the and they tell you to boil water.” 

But Brown’s attitude changed on Aug. 29, when Reeves announced in an evening press conference that the city would be without clean, running water “indefinitely.” The pressure had dropped so low that many of Jackson’s 150,000 residents weren’t receiving water at all. 

In the coming days, the Mississippi National Guard would be staffing water distribution sites across the city – but getting there would require a car, a significant barrier in a state that has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the country. 

That night, Brown realized it was unclear how, if at all, the state was planning to bring water to elderly and disabled folks who wouldn’t be able to drive to the distribution sites. So the student activist, known for her role in helping to coordinate the city’s largest protest since the movement, decided it was time to mobilize. She posted a call-out on social media for volunteers to help her deliver water. 

“The state has consistently ignored Jackson’s asks for help,” she said. “We are not high-priority for the people in power, because of the Black, poverty-stricken population that we are.”

Within 24 hours, Brown raised over nearly $2,500 (it’s more than $6,000 now) and assembled more than 20 JSU students to start the “MS Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team.” Together, they’ve delivered about 1,000 cases of water to more than 200 homes, organizing drop-offs via a shared spreadsheet.  

Marquise Hunt delivers water to a Jackson, Mississippi resident Tamela Davis on September 1, 2022.

Brown’s iPhone hasn’t stopped ringing since. That Wednesday morning, she got 14 calls: A representative asked if she could include Brown’s number on a list of water distribution resources; a stranger requested a delivery for a friend with multiple sclerosis; several journalists from national media reached out for an interview.

Most calls were from Jacksonians who couldn’t get to the city and state distribution sites. Whether they offered an explanation or not, Brown delivered water. 

“If the government could do everything, then there’d be no nonprofit or grassroots organizations,” she said. “The whole structure of government, the way it’s built today, is not enough to help people. That’s the wall people are running into.” 

As Brown exited I-55, a 917 area code popped up on the Ford Edge’s dashboard. 

“Who is this from New York calling me?” Brown said. 

It was a producer from CNN – the first of five media calls Brown would receive that day on the temporary number she had created for the hotline. Before the producer could finish pitching Brown on a segment, she was interrupted by a Jacksonian who called the hotline for a water delivery. (Brown got so many calls from reporters last week that she had to post on Twitter asking them not to use the hotline.) 

“This is my phone all day long,” Brown said when she hung up. 

A few minutes later, she pulled into the shopping plaza where Academy was located and checked her phone, hoping they wouldn’t cancel her order like the in Byram had the day before.

Brown spotted two Academy workers wheeling cases of water on a blue platform dolly. She hopped out of the car to greet them, then popped the trunk. One of the workers stared at it for a second and frowned. 

“I know y’all are probably like who the f— is ordering 20 packs of water?” Brown said jokingly. 

“No, I get it,” he replied. “Y’all are good.” 

For Brown, a political science major, the water emergency has sparked big-picture questions about the role of government in a democratic society and who it really serves. The one-party state government doesn’t serve everyone in Mississippi, Brown said, because it was not elected by everyone. Black Mississippians, more likely to vote Democratic, are also disenfranchised at higher rates than white people. 

“We’re a red state, but we’re a Black state too,” Brown said. “People forget that part.” 

This perspective has led Brown to push for change on an array of systemic issues in Mississippi, including the state flag that held the Confederate battle emblem, the “pink tax” on menstrual products, and the disproportionate impact of abortion bans on Black and low-income people. 

Brown said she views this work as a way of building a better world – an outlook she adopted after reading the “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” a book by Derrick Bell.

“The work you’re doing is not in vain, but will be a model for a new society – a better one,” Brown said, paraphrasing the introduction by the lawyer Michelle Alexander. “That keeps me motivated.” 

On her way back from Madison, Brown stopped at her first drop-off, an orange-and-red apartment complex behind a car dealership on South Frontage Road. Two young men helped Brown carry the 29-lb packs of water cases to the front door. 

Then it was off to west Jackson, where Brown had two stops to make. The first was at a house with red trim on Maple Street near Lanier High School, the first high school built for Black kids in Jackson. The woman who lived there wasn’t home but worried someone might take the water cases, so she asked Brown to leave them behind the bushes next to her doorstep. 

Even though Brown is from Madison, she’s well acquainted with this part of the city – her dad’s side of the family used to own a restaurant here, but now it’s boarded up. Brown also went to school in the city, because her dad is a principal in Jackson’s school district. On the weekends, he’d go to block parties to meet the community, and she’d tag along. 

“It’s very rare that people who don’t live in Jackson try to go to school here,” she said. “It’s always the opposite way.” 

Indeed, the phenomenon that Brown is getting at – white flight – is another contributing factor to Jackson’s water crisis. The overgrown bushes and derelict buildings in west Jackson are an above-ground symptom of the billions in lost tax dollars as 71% of white residents have left since 1980. Beneath the city, the water lines are deteriorating just the same. 

Marquise Hunt (left) and Maisie Brown deliver water to a Jackson, Mississippi resident on September 1, 2022.

The temperature was starting to get hot and muggy. Outside the yellow duplex where Brown made her next delivery, a man was blowing cut grass off the sidewalk. Brown thought about delivering water to the next-door neighbor, but decided against it – a pitbull, panting in front of a silver water bowl, guarded the porch. 

As Brown turned to leave, he asked if she had enough cases for the neighboring house – if so, he’d call the man who lived there to ask. 

“How long y’all doing the water?” he asked.

“As long as the money comes in to keep doing more,” she replied. 

Brown’s last stop for the day was in North Jackson at a red brick house in a subdivision near Hope Spring Missionary Baptist Church, one of the oldest churches in Jackson, established in 1865 to serve freed slaves. A woman answered the door, revealing a large painting of a white, fluffy cat in the dim entryway. 

“You brought me some water,” she remarked. “I didn’t have any water. Thank you.”

Sitting in her car in the woman’s driveway, Brown took a moment to pause. She turned up the volume on “America Has a Problem,” her favorite song from Beyonce’s latest album, and thought about preparing for a TV interview that night. 

“Alright,” she said, “let me figure out some things while I’m at a stopping point.” 

Then her phone rang.

The images in this story are from Deep Indigo Collective, a visual storytelling resource supporting news outlets reporting on the local impacts of environmental threats and the climate crisis. As a 501(c)(3) organization, Deep Indigo is proud to produce original visual journalism on behalf of our editorial partners across the United States.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

‘Termination notice’: Letters from Medicaid confuse new moms

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Postpartum women never lost Medicaid coverage during the pandemic. But the state told them they did.

Thanks to misleading letters sent by the Mississippi Division of in recent years, tens of thousands of new moms may have chosen to forgo after giving birth – even as the federal government was sending Mississippi extra money to help pay for their care during the pandemic. 

Mississippians whose pregnancies were covered by Medicaid retained full benefits during the pandemic under federal law, instead of getting kicked off 60 days after giving birth as they ordinarily would under state policy. That should have allowed them to keep seeing their doctors and get treatment for conditions like postpartum depression, high blood pressure and anything else they needed to stay healthy after their baby’s birth. 

But many women thought they didn’t have coverage because of letters sent to every recipient of pregnancy Medicaid telling them they were no longer eligible. While healthy adults under 65 generally don’t qualify for Medicaid, pregnant women are covered as long as they meet income requirements, and about 60% of births in Mississippi are covered by Medicaid. An untold number of pregnancy Medicaid recipients may have stopped going to the doctor after receiving the letters, believing they would be charged as if they had no health insurance. 

Several recipients of the letters told Mississippi Today they only found out they had coverage after going to the doctor, in some cases so desperate for care that they were willing to pay whatever they had to out of pocket. 

“Your Medicaid eligibility has ended,” the sparse letter from the Division of Medicaid said. The heading read “TERMINATION NOTICE – Loss of Medicaid Eligibility.”

A second letter delivered later, titled “NOTICE OF MEDICAID REINSTATEMENT DURING COVID-19 PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY,” explained that those covered as of March 18, 2020 would have their coverage reinstated. But it did not make reference to the first letter or explain what kind of coverage recipients now had. 

Some women told Mississippi Today they never got the second letter. 

Dr. Anita Henderson, a Hattiesburg pediatrician and president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said she screens moms for postpartum depression during their newborns’ early checkups. During the public health emergency, she and colleagues expected new moms to retain Medicaid coverage indefinitely. 

“We found that some of those moms were coming back and saying, ‘We don’t have Medicaid, or we don’t know that we have Medicaid.’ Or they were saying, ‘No, I have gotten this termination letter,’” Henderson said. “Once we offered clarification and discovered they still qualified, they would go to that appointment, or we would help set up the appointment and they would go. But if they did not know they had coverage, they may not have utilized it.”

The new moms’ confusion and reluctance to seek care almost certainly saved the Division of Medicaid money – and one expert believes the confusing communication may have been intentional.

The first letter notified the recipients that they had been kicked off of the managed care plan, a program through which the state pays a set amount of money to a “coordinated care organization” each month, which then pays for recipients’ care. 

The reinstatement described in the second letter shifted them to another type of Medicaid in which the state pays directly for each visit and treatment. The fewer services new moms sought, the less money the Division of Medicaid had to spend. 

Joan Alker, executive director and co-founder of the Center for Children and Families (CCF) at Georgetown University and an expert on Medicaid, said she had not heard of other states moving people from managed care to fee-for-service coverage during the pandemic. 

“I fear this is an intentional strategy to cut costs on the backs of these postpartum women,” Alker said. 

Matt Westerfield, communications director for Medicaid, said the department could not provide a “validated analysis” of postpartum spending during the public health emergency by publication time. 

“Generally, it appears that monthly medical costs have exceeded $200 per beneficiary per month in months 3 to 12 of the postpartum period,” he wrote.

The state pays managed care companies between $1,076 and $1,186 monthly per pregnant woman, depending on the beneficiary’s location.  

In a statement to Mississippi Today last week, the Division of Medicaid acknowledged the letters were a mistake. 

“An automated form letter related to disenrollment from a managed care plan should have been updated to mention the continuing availability of full Medicaid benefits,” said Westerfield. “We have directed that the form letter be updated, and staff is currently reviewing other beneficiary communications to make improvements where needed.”

Trista Carlton gave birth to her daughter in June 2021. The 28-year-old Laurel resident had Medicaid as her secondary insurance, and about 60 days postpartum, she got the letter informing her that her coverage had been terminated.

Carlton started rationing her visits to the doctor because she was worried about the cost. 

“Not only do you have your copay, you have what your insurance doesn’t cover afterwards, so it definitely makes you second-guess making a visit to go to the doctor and see what’s going on,” she said. “Having a new baby, that comes with added costs that you’re thinking about. You kind of put yourself on the back burner, not knowing what’s going on.”

She never got the second letter telling her the coverage had been reinstated, but she eventually decided she needed to see her doctor for anxiety and depression. Only then did she learn she still had coverage.

Trista Carlton, a 28-year-old new mom in Laurel, thought she no longer had Medicaid coverage after she got a letter telling her she had been terminated. When she finally went to the doctor, she learned she was still covered, as federal law requires during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.

Carlton then called local Medicaid offices in Laurel and Brandon to ask what was going on. She said staff there told her she only had family planning Medicaid coverage, which pays for up to four annual visits related to birth control. Before the Public Health Emergency, women who gave birth on Medicaid were rolled onto family planning coverage for one year after they lost full coverage. 

“I’ve never really been able to get a direct answer,” she said. “But all of my primary care visits have gone through. And as far as I know, I’m still covered under Medicaid.”

Several other women told Mississippi Today they had similar experiences after receiving the letters. 

Chelsea Brooks, a new mom in Florence, canceled a doctor’s appointment because she got the letter telling her she had lost coverage. More than two months later, she got the reinstatement letter and contacted her doctor. The experience was “very confusing,” she said.

Kristen Elliott, a mom in Brandon, got the first letter a few months ago and thought she had lost coverage. But when she went to the doctor a few weeks ago, she found out she was still covered. 

“I’m not even sure what was going on with it,” she said. 

In March 2020, Congress passed a law requiring “continuous coverage” for Medicaid recipients to ensure no one lost access to health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. That forced states to do something they had never done before: change their systems to stop kicking people off of Medicaid even if they lost eligibility, said Jennifer H. Wagner, director of Medicaid Eligibility and Enrollment at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Nearly 150,000 more Mississippians are on Medicaid than before the pandemic, said Westerfield, the state Medicaid communications officer. 

In Mississippi, the termination notice at 60 days postpartum was already programmed to be sent to recipients. Creating a totally new notice to explain instead that recipients still had coverage is “more complicated than it sounds,” Wagner said. Instead, the state just added a second letter telling recipients their coverage was reinstated. 

Wagner said that though she understood why the state sent the letters, they were confusing. 

“Coverage is only good if you know you have it,” she said. 

The continuous coverage requirement also came with extra federal funding for states. That funding exceeded the extra costs of covering more people in every state. But no state got a better deal from the feds than Mississippi, where the extra federal funding was six times higher than the expanded coverage costs, according to an analysis by KFF, a nonprofit research organization. (The state already had the highest federal matching rate in the country before the pandemic.)

By moving women from managed care to fee for service, and then paying for fewer services, the state saved money.

Mississippi has the second-highest share of births covered by Medicaid in the country, at 60%. 

More than 21,000 Mississippi women gave birth while covered by Medicaid in 2020. Nearly all of them should have been able to continue seeing their doctors until the public health emergency ended. The Biden Administration has not yet said when that will happen, but is expected to extend it until at least January 2023. 

Mississippi has a high maternal mortality rate relative to the national average. Black women in Mississippi are three times likelier than white women to die of pregnancy-related complications. 

Doctors and public health advocates argue that extending postpartum Medicaid would save lives and improve infant and maternal health by ensuring women have access to health care for the first year of their baby’s life. After passing the Senate with broad bipartisan support this year, a proposal to extend coverage to a year postpartum died in the House thanks to opposition from Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. 

Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven and chair of the Medicaid Committee, has vowed to reintroduce the legislation. With now banned in Mississippi, lawmakers are under pressure to help families and babies who suffer the nation’s highest rate of infant mortality. 

Drew Snyder, the director of the Division of Medicaid, has so far declined to take a stance on whether postpartum Medicaid coverage should be extended. But he recently told the talk radio host Paul Gallo that data from the pandemic, when pregnant women didn’t lose coverage after giving birth, could be used to inform the conversation. 

“Maybe one of the benefits of deferring a decision on this is that Mississippi and every other state is going to have 2021 data to show … Did anything happen with maternal health outcomes?” Snyder said. “Particularly late maternal …  That may be a good argument for advocates of the 12-month [extension] to say, ‘Hey, we need to do this.’”

Mississippi doctors and national experts say that idea ignores the effects of COVID-19 on pregnant women. The virus has been linked to higher rates of stillbirth and maternal death

And now, it appears that many women may not have known they still had health insurance throughout the pandemic. 

Henderson saw the coverage help moms – if they knew they had it.

“I have moms who are at two months, four months, six months, 12 months and are on antidepressants and now have those medications covered,” she said. “They are getting therapy. They are getting their asthma and hypertension treated. So, I do know from a parent (and) patient standpoint, that my patients have been positively impacted if their mothers have been able to continue with access and continue with coverage in those instances.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Abortion pill maker drops Mississippi lawsuit

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Abortion pill maker drops Mississippi lawsuit with national implications, but fight isn’t over

An pill manufacturer voluntarily dismissed its challenging Mississippi’s restrictions on medication abortion on Thursday, but the legal question it raised is unlikely to disappear. 

GenBioPro, the manufacturer of generic mifepristone – the drug used along with misoprostol to end pregnancies up to 10 weeks of gestation – argued in its 2020 complaint that Mississippi’s restrictions on abortion medication were unconstitutional because they were much stricter than those set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and thus preempted by federal law. The legal landscape changed dramatically with the overturning of Roe in June, but if courts accept that argument, medication abortion could remain legal even in states like Mississippi that have banned the procedure.

There is little precedent on whether states can regulate drugs more strictly than the FDA, and legal and reproductive health experts were keeping a close eye on the Mississippi case. 

GenBioPro said in a statement that it would continue the effort to expand access to medication abortion.

“Given the changed national landscape, we have decided to adjust our strategy and withdraw our existing case in Mississippi,” the statement said. “We are committed to using the law to remove unnecessary barriers for patients and providers and we look forward to making an announcement soon about our next steps.”

Lynn Fitch, whose office represented state health officers Dr. Thomas Dobbs and Dr. Daniel Edney in the lawsuit, claimed the voluntary dismissal was a “victory for life” in a statement Thursday night. 

“We are pleased to have again successfully defended Mississippi’s abortion laws,” Fitch said. “These laws represent the will of the people and the intent of the Legislature to promote life, protect the health and safety of women, and preserve the integrity of the medical profession. Our victory in Dobbs affirmed the right of the people to pass laws that defend these legitimate public interests.”

When GenBioPro filed the lawsuit in 2020, abortion was still legal but heavily regulated in Mississippi, with pills treated like any other procedure at the state’s only abortion clinic. Patients had to wait 24 hours between visits and take the first pill at the clinic, though the FDA allows people to take the pills at home.

In June, the ’s ruling in Dobbs v. ended the constitutional right to abortion and allowed Mississippi’s near-complete ban on the procedure to take effect. That upended abortion law around the country, and GenBioPro may have decided it could make a better argument in a different state or a more favorable appellate circuit. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Mississippi, is the country’s most politically conservative

“My assumption is that the nature of the argument has changed for GenBioPro,” said Rachel Rebouché, dean of the Temple University Beasley School of Law and an expert in reproductive health law. “When it filed the lawsuit, it was taking aim at more narrow restrictions on abortion. Now it could file suit in a place that bans all abortion including medication abortion, essentially takes the first drug of a medication abortion out of those state markets. So I think in a sense that some of the legal questions have shifted because the nature of some of the laws have shifted.”

After the ruling in Dobbs, GenBioPro submitted a filing arguing that the state’s abortion ban – including pills – created a “that-much-more direct and glaring conflict” with the FDA’s approval of the drugs. It also sought to submit an amended complaint to address Mississippi’s trigger law. 

The Attorney General’s Office argued in an Aug. 4 filing that Mississippi’s trigger ban did not “impermissibly regulate the safety or efficacy” of an FDA-approved drug but rather prohibited “primary conduct—performing abortions—that the State is constitutionally entitled to prohibit.”

The brief also claimed that federal law criminalizes mailing abortion pills anywhere in the United States, citing laws that the Department of Justice has not enforced for decades

Instead of filing an amended complaint by its deadline of Aug. 18, GenBioPro dismissed its lawsuit.

Laurie Sobel, associate director for women’s health policy at KFF, a nonprofit focused on health policy research, said she anticipates GenBioPro will file a new lawsuit in a different jurisdiction, or another manufacturer could seek to make a similar case. The preemption argument could potentially be used in any state where medication abortion is tightly regulated or banned. 

“I don’t think this issue is going away,” she said. “The issue that everyone is now kind of focused on is where does regulation of medication come down to? Does the FDA get to regulate it as its sole domain? Or because it’s used for abortion, do states get to regulate it with respect to abortion?”

Rebouché said there are few precedents to predict how the arguments around preemption could play out. The closest analogy is likely state regulations of opioids: A Massachusetts ban on Zohydro, a new and controversial but FDA-approved opioid, was overturned by a federal court that found the state ban was preempted by federal law.

“It’s a novel argument in a sense that preemption has been around for a very long time – it’s part of the constitutional structure – but states really haven’t tried to ban FDA-approved drugs,” she said.

Before Mississippi’s abortion ban took effect, medication abortion accounted for well over half of the procedures performed at the state’s only abortion clinic. 

The FDA approved the pills in 2000. From then until 2017, it recorded 22 deaths among people who used mifepristone, or an average of one in 155,000, to a maternal mortality rate of 17 in 100,000 as of 2018.

Now, abortion rights supporters and opponents agree that the pills remain a major battleground in Mississippi and other states. Local advocates have vowed to help people get the pills, and international nonprofits and pharmacies have pledged to keep writing prescriptions and mailing drugs to Americans in states that ban abortion. 

Because states lack authority over the postal service, it’s unclear what they can do to stop the pills. But Mississippi lawmakers plan to try. 

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, told Mississippi Today in May that the Legislature could pass a law targeting medication abortion specifically and directing law enforcement to focus on that issue.

“We know this is a new layer of law enforcement that we’re going to be expecting of you, in the agency, attorney general’s office — whomever it’ll apply to. You’re going to need more staff, you’re going to need more resources in order to enforce that new law,” Fillingane said. “It could very well be not only a directive further fleshing out the trigger law language, but also an appropriations bill that sends money to that agency and agencies that will be tasked with enforcing the law.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

5 reasons lawmakers might not want to restore the ballot initiative

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5 reasons lawmakers might not want to restore the ballot initiative

Mississippi is the only state in the modern era to rescind its initiative process that allowed voters to bypass the Legislature and place issues directly on the ballot.

In 2021 the ruled unconstitutional the signature-gathering process as spelled out in the Constitution to place issues on the ballot. The ruling resulted in a initiative approved by voters in November 2020 and the entire initiative process being found to be invalid.

The Legislature could not agree during the 2022 session on language to revive the initiative process.

If the Legislature did restore the initiative, there would be at least five issues that could be the subject of initiative efforts. Those five issues, all opposed by many of the state’s political leaders, might be the reason legislators are reluctant to revive the initiative.

Those five initiatives would:

  • Expand .
  • Allow early .
  • Approve recreational marijuana.
  • Restore rights.
  • Allow people convicted of felonies to regain their voting rights at some point after they complete their sentence.

No doubt, there are other issues that most likely would be the subject of initiative efforts if the process was restored. Generally, initiatives are undertaken when legislators refuse to act on issues, such as on medical marijuana recently and on voter identification in 2011.

Medical marijuana was being rejected by the Legislature as a whole. In 2011, one chamber of the Legislature – the Democratic-controlled House – was blocking the enactment of a voter ID requirement.

Just like with medical marijuana and voter ID, the five issues cited above are currently being blocked by key legislators.

Medicaid expansion

Mississippi is one of 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid to provide health insurance for primarily the working poor. The two biggest obstacles to Medicaid expansion have been House Speaker Philip Gunn and Gov. Tate Reeves, who argue the state cannot afford to cover Mississippi’s share of the costs. Various studies have concluded that the expansion would actually be a boon to state coffers since the federal government would pay the bulk of the costs.

Various diverse groups ranging from the Mississippi Hospital Association to the Delta Council have endorsed expansion.

Early voting

Despite the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump and many of his supporters bemoaning the evils of early voting, 46 states allow no excuse early voting and 27 permit voting by mail. And most states were allowing the various forms of early voting long before the 2020 election and the pandemic.

And truth be known, early voting has long been popular. Still, Reeves and other Mississippi politicians proudly proclaim they will block any effort to place Mississippi within the mainstream of states by enacting no excuse early voting.

Recreational marijuana

Like with early voting and Medicaid expansion, there was a recreational marijuana initiative being considered when the Mississippi Supreme Court shut down the initiative process.

And granted, it might be a long shot that Mississippi voters would approve recreational marijuana. But marijuana supporters in Arkansas garnered significantly more signatures than needed to place the issue on the November ballot.

If Arkansans approve or come close to approving recreational marijuana in November, that could be a sign that Mississippians also are willing to consider the issue.

Felony suffrage

Mississippi is one of a few states (less than 10) that do not restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies at some point after they complete their sentence. The felony suffrage provision was incorporated into the 1890 Constitution by those attempting to prevent African Americans from voting.

Voters in Florida recently voted via ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies.

Abortion rights

Granted, it has long been perceived that Mississippians as a whole are staunchly anti-abortion. But after the June ruling by the in the Mississippi decision – Dobbs v. – overturning and rescinding a national right to an abortion, there has been a hue and cry by some to let Mississippians vote on the issue. After all, people who support abortion rights figure they have nothing to lose since existing Mississippi laws ban most abortions.

And there are a few reasons to give abortion rights supporters hope. For instance, in Kansas, a conservative state like Mississippi, voters recently rejected an anti-abortion proposal at the ballot box.

In addition, when Mississippians voted on abortion in 2011, they overwhelmingly defeated the “Personhood” initiative that defined life as beginning at conception. Plus, recent polling indicates that a vote on abortion in Mississippi might be close.

But unless the Legislature restores the initiative, we may never know how Mississippians feel about these issues and others.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

In ‘South to America,’ Imani Perry seeks to understand a region ‘so varying it can seem endless’

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In ‘South to America,’ Imani Perry seeks to understand a region ‘so varying it can seem endless’

Imani Perry

Imani Perry’s argument in “South to America” will feel familiar to any Southerner, or to anyone at all, who has ever been startled by the cheerful dismissals of the region you sometimes encounter elsewhere in the United States. “I’d never want to go to the South,” people up north have said when I told them where I’m from, as if it is a singular place uniformly deserving of disinterest or contempt. Perry, a native of Birmingham, Ala., argues that this tendency to treat the South – and especially its brutal history of racist exploitation and violence – as excisable from the rest of the country is a convenient fantasy. 

The argument will also be familiar to anyone who has read much about the modern history of “the South” — a label that can sometimes feel more theoretical than lived, given the diversity of the place. As Perry writes, “The South is so varying it can seem endless. And yet you will still know ‘Southern’ means something over and against other regions.”

Writers’ journeys here are often a quest to understand our under-examined, intentionally obscured or distorted history, from Tony Horowitz’s “Confederates in the Attic” (a book Perry criticizes for its softness on white re-enactors and their devotion to Lost Cause mythology) to Clint Smith’s recent “How the Word is Passed.” Perry is a professor of African American studies at Princeton University and author of books on Lorraine Hansberry and the Black National Anthem, and she is very clear about the tradition she follows: “South to America” was directly inspired by Albert Murray’s book “South to A Very Old Place,” first published in 1971. 

Murray was born and raised in Mobile and educated at Tuskegee University before moving to New York and making a career as an essayist, novelist and critic. During and after the movement, as Black writers and intellectuals debated whether the path forward was separatism or integration, Murray argued for the centrality of Black culture to American culture, and the unworkability of Black nationalism.

When “South to A Very Old Place” was published, the civil rights movement had wrought massive changes across the country, but their full significance was unclear. And though civil rights leaders had long highlighted the segregation and economic marginalization that characterized Black life in northern cities, the boundaries of the South were perhaps not as blurry as they are today. 

Perry’s view of the South as synecdoche-of-sorts for America feels salient in 2022. We remember the Confederate hoisted in the U.S. Capitol – a scene never witnessed during the – on Jan. 6. The man who carried it was from Delaware, a slave state that remained in the Union, though that fact is perhaps unimportant in an era when the Confederate flag flies across the country, no longer always or even often purporting to represent “southern pride.” 

Lawmakers in Wisconsin and Arizona join Georgians and Texans in plotting new ways to limit suffrage. The religious right, rooted in Southern evangelicalism, is ascendant. In the days after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. , the battle-worn and exhausted clinic escorts, helping the final patients make it to their appointments before the clock ran out on legal in the state, repeated some version of a bitter line: “Welcome to Mississippi, America.”

The southernization of American political life may also help explain why parts of Perry’s journey, 50 years after Murray’s, trigger similar reflections. In Atlanta, Murray visits a restaurant and is served uneventfully by a young white waitress. He thinks about what she would say if, say, Newsweek interviewed her about desegregation. He wouldn’t be surprised if she told them how “a white girl shouldn’t have to serve Negroes, and all that crap.” But then he asks: “Is what she says when interviewed on desegregation as a specific issue really more significant than the way she is acting right now with me sitting here?” 

At the Nashville airport, Perry approaches a vending machine and realizes a white man is waiting to restock it. “You can g’on and get you something,” he tells her, smiling. Perry thinks that based on his demographics, “the odds are he wouldn’t feel so warmly about me,” and that she would likely be “irked by the things he thinks about the world.” And yet there is still “the softness with which we could speak to one another.” “Whatever it is that I’m saying about the South as America includes that too.” A point that was optimistic in 1971 now feels nearly tragic. 

Murray beautifully rendered the speech of southerners, especially Black southerners in his hometown and from his university days at Tuskegee. Entire pages are filled with lengthy quotes from people he just let talk and talk. He compares the voices taking turns during a living room chat to a jazz ensemble. Perry seems to have spoken to fewer people, and her conversations with people she meets for the first time on her journey – as opposed to people she has long known as family friends or fellow writers – are often short. Their significance is sometimes derived from a heavy dose of speculation, like when a Lyft driver in Virginia becomes a symbol of toxic white evangelicalism after a strange but apparently brief exchange. 

Perry notes that her politics are quite different from those of Murray, who believed in an American identity built through all of its constitutive parts: a “nation of multi-colored people.” (When Toni Morrison reviewed “South to a Very Old Place” for the New York Times in 1972, she criticized his disinterest in “the Afro part of Afro-Americans:” “The history of black Americans neither begins nor ends in Mobile, Ala.; its true meaning will stay hidden from any black who does not know that there is another place even Souther and much, much older.”)

Perry instead draws connections between the Black South and the larger Black diaspora. In addition to 12 states and the District of Columbia, she travels to the Bahamas and Havana to show the historical and cultural linkages between the South and the Caribbean, and to gain perspective through distance. “We say the only difference between Black folks in various parts of the diaspora is where the boat stopped, but we don’t say that the boats, and the marches through land, didn’t ever stop…. There are rhythms that would be found here and there, though a different blend. This is, I think, the thing that Albert Murray got wrong about the South, even as he described those rhythms with a seriousness and a precision unlike anyone before and likely since.”

In Mississippi, Perry focuses on the city of Jackson, highlighting the historical ironies that surround those of us who live here to such a degree that we sometimes become inured to them. Jackson, Perry writes, “is part Chicago and mostly Mississippi, a place where, like the first Chokwe Lumumba, people reverse-migrate, either to start a revolution or because life in the North was too cold.” 

She describes the history of the New Afrikan People’s Organization, for which Lumumba was vice president, with “the goals of self-determination, land ownership, and an independent nation-state for New Afrikans” in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Though the Black Power movement is often conceptualized as non-Southern, she points out that it is a Deep South capital that is led by a “scion of Black nationalism,” the younger Chokwe Lumumba. And Jackson, “unapologetically Black,” is the capital of the state with the country’s largest Black population and largest number of Black elected officials, and home to two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Perry vividly describes the Sonic Boom of the South marching through the city streets). All this in the American state most synonymous with violence and murder in the name of white supremacy. 

Yet today the life expectancy for Black men in Mississippi is less than 67 years. Perry mentions, too, the Central American and Mexican poultry factory workers detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the largest raids in history. 

“We haven’t outrun or outlived the plantation, although it looks a little bit different… There’s an honesty to Mississippi about all of this. The triumph is not in ends, it is in the fact that we are still here.”

Perry is a featured panelist at the Mississippi Book on Aug. 20.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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