Mississippi lawmakers more interested in banning abortion than saving new moms

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Abortion bans aren't helping the state's 'alarming infant and maternal mortality rates.'

Mississippi has taken its unconstitutional previability abortion ban all the way to the Supreme Court, but it's long since left behind the health of the women at the heart of the matter. 

During the Supreme Court term that begins in October, the court will hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, a case about whether Mississippi can prohibit abortion before fetal viability, the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb.

"Viability" has been at the heart of laws about abortion since Roe v. Wade, which held there was a constitutional right to an abortion before viability. Dobbs seeks to undo that entire constitutional structure. 

However, while Mississippi has been very busy finding ways to argue that viability should no longer be the standard, it seems to be neglecting to address the state's dangerously deficient health care for women and children.

The district court in the Dobbs case actually called the state out on this, which made the state unhappy enough that it dwelled on it on its petition asking the Supreme Court to hear the case. It complained of a "diatribe" from U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves after he pointed out the vast inequities in Mississippi's system of health care for pregnant people. 

Reeves stated in his ruling in Jackson Women’s Health v. Currier that state leaders are "proud to challenge Roe" but choose "not to lift a finger to address the tragedies lurking on the other side of the delivery room: our alarming infant and maternal mortality rates." Reeves also concluded that the Mississippi Legislature's ostensible interest in protecting women's health was "pure gaslighting." Finally, he noted that Mississippi has medical challenges for women, infants, and children but has no intention of expanding Medicaid to address those issues. 

Even though those truths seemed to offend the state enough to make it part of its Supreme Court petition, the judge isn't wrong, as the numbers bear him out. 

Mississippi has the worst infant mortality rate in the country, and consistently so. In 2019, the state had 9.07 deaths per 1,000 live births. It also had the highest rate in the country in 2015, 2017, and 2018 and came in second to Alabama in 2016. The state also has the highest rate of both preterm births and low birth weights.

The state does little to track maternal mortality. It does have a maternal mortality committee; however, it doesn't track any elements that committees in other states track, such as whether deaths are preventable or trends in the data. What little information the state does track shows that between 2013 to 2016, Black women in Mississippi died during childbirth at nearly three times the rate of white women. 

The Commonwealth Fund examined state policies to improve maternal health outcomes and found gaps in Mississippi's care for pregnant women. The state hasn't increased access to treatment for women who have a high risk of maternal mental health conditions. It hasn't adopted enhanced maternal health data collection or established a maternal health advisory council. 

The state has also thus far declined to accept Medicaid expansion. Acceptance of that expansion in other states has been shown to decrease the infant mortality rate, particularly for Black infants. Similarly, acceptance of Medicaid expansion funds has been shown to decrease maternal mortality, particularly for Black mothers. 

Mississippi's GOP governor, Tate Reeves, opposes any expansion of Medicaid. In April 2021, enough signatures were obtained to place a Medicaid expansion question on the 2022 ballot. However, a recent Mississippi Supreme Court decision invalidated the state's entire ballot initiative process. With that, it's unlikely the state will adopt the expansion. 

A 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi would disproportionately harm people with low incomes. Those individuals are more likely to need second-trimester abortions because it takes time to assemble enough money for the procedure and the assorted ancillary costs like child care and lodging.

Also, if people have to leave the state for a second-trimester abortion, their driving distance increases dramatically. Indeed, driving distance poses a particular problem for Mississippi residents because Mississippi is surrounded by states — Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas — that are also hostile to abortion rights. 

In the end, the Supreme Court may allow Mississippi to keep its 15-week ban, but doing so will do nothing to address the deadly problems faced by pregnant people and vulnerable infants.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.