Jurisprudence

Mississippi Claims Its Abortion Ban Will “Empower” Women

In reality, it could kill them.

Women holds signs promoting the right to abortion access, including "trust women."
Protesters demonstrate in support of abortion access. Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch wants to “empower” American women by abolishing their constitutional right to an abortion. In an interview Thursday with Eternal Word Television Network, the Republican attorney general explained that outlawing abortion will help women who are forced to birth children, giving them “a chance to really redirect their lives.” These women “have all these new and different opportunities” that did not exist when Roe came down in 1973, Fitch said. And so, according to Fitch, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the upcoming Supreme Court case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, will not be a tragedy but a blessing.*

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This argument crops up in Mississippi’s Dobbs brief, in which Fitch claimed that women simply do not need abortion access any longer. “Numerous laws enacted since Roe—addressing pregnancy discrimination, requiring leave time, assisting with childcare, and more—facilitate the ability of women to pursue both career success and a rich family life,” she wrote. It is shocking to hear this claim from Fitch, whose state refuses to enact laws that would grant basic protections and security to new and expectant mothers.

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The fact is: Mississippi remains a dangerous and difficult place to bear, birth, and raise a child for lower-income parents. And the Supreme Court can only embrace Fitch’s fantastical thinking by denying this brutal reality.

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At every stage of pregnancy, life is difficult for Mississippians who are not wealthy. The state’s maternal mortality rate is substantially higher than the national average, and its infant mortality rate is the highest in the nation. And the racial disparities are staggering. Black mothers die at about three times the rate of white mothers. While Black infants only make up 43 percent of births, they are more than half of the premature births and nearly 60 percent of the infant deaths. Black infants also experience birth defects at four times the rate of white infants.

A huge amount of this pain and death could be avoided if expectant mothers had access to medical care. But they do not, because Mississippi refuses to provide the necessary funding. More than half of the state’s counties lack an OB-GYN or a delivering hospital. It is no surprise that children born in these counties disproportionately suffer low birth rates and infant mortality. Mississippi could address this problem by expanding Medicaid, an act that would cover up to 300,000 people, including thousands of expectant mothers, and pour money into rural health services. But the state’s Republicans have refused, effectively denying care to thousands of lower-income mothers.

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For newborns and their parents, the situation is equally grim. The lack of medical services in the state’s rural regions prevents infants from receiving adequate care. And the state kicks new mothers off Medicaid just two months after birth. This year, bipartisan lawmakers in the Mississippi Senate pushed to permanently extend postpartum Medicaid coverage to a full year after birth—but Republican legislators in the Mississippi House scuttled the proposal. The state’s high uninsured rate would be even worse if Fitch had her way: Last year, the attorney general asked the Supreme Court to repeal Obamacare, a decision that would have stripped health insurance from at least 111,000 Mississippians.

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To many new parents, then, Mississippi offers an excruciating choice: Return to work immediately or lose your health insurance. Mothers who do return to work may be paid less than their male peers: Mississippi is the only state in the nation with no law guaranteeing equal pay for equal work. The United States is one of just two countries in the world with no national paid leave policy for parents. And like most states, Mississippi does not mandate paid parental leave. (State workers, including Fitch’s own employees, receive no guaranteed paid parental leave, either.)

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Low-income parents in Mississippi may qualify for child care assistance if they work at least 25 hours every week. But the state regularly puts beneficiaries through “redetermination,” which requires them to reapply for the subsidies; many are then denied reenrollment for opaque reasons. During the pandemic, an aggressive “redetermination” forced as many as 4,100 parents off this assistance, depriving up to 7,300 children of child care.

The unfortunate truth is that a huge number of new parents in Mississippi can’t afford to secure adequate care for their children, and the state refuses to provide sufficient aid. It has no minimum wage law, which means the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour applies. The parent of a young child who earns the minimum wage cannot even begin to cover the costs of care for their child. As a brief filed in Dobbs by 154 economists points out, the mother of an infant making $15 an hour—more than twice the minimum wage—“faces infant childcare costs that total one-third of her gross pay.” Mississippi law is not just indifferent toward new parents; it is hostile to them.

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It is cruel and tragic that the states most eager to restrict abortion have the most devastating rates of infant and maternal mortality. The Mississippi Legislature could have spent the last few years helping new and expectant parents. Instead, it passed a series of laws that would force people to carry unwanted pregnancies, then refused to enact basic measures to protect their health before, during, and after childbirth. (While Dobbs involves a 15-week ban, the state has already passed a six-week ban, too, and Fitch has asked SCOTUS to greenlight bans at every stage of pregnancy.)

In her EWTN interview, Fitch asserted that banning abortion would “empower” Mississippi women. But in reality, it is more likely to kill them.

Correction, Sept. 27, 2021: This article originally misidentified Jackson Women’s Health Organization as Jackson Women’s Health Center.

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