Until the twenty-first century, Mississippi had rarely played a major role in national discussions about reproductive rights. But in 2011, 57 percent of Mississippi voters voted against Proposition 26, an initiative that would have defined human life as beginning at conception and therefore made abortion illegal in the state. Even before Proposition 26, Mississippi had the strictest rules about access to abortion and the fewest abortions in the United States.
From 1840 into the 1960s Mississippi had two laws that addressed abortion. One defined giving drugs to a pregnant woman to kill an unborn child as manslaughter. The other prohibited owning, selling, distributing, or advertising drugs “for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion.”
Until the mid-twentieth century, abortion did not generate much public discussion in the state. Throughout the United States, abortion was illegal but available. The unevenness of its availability according to income or location made abortion dangerous, mysterious, or at least unfair. Historians have shown that abortion increased dramatically across the United States during the Great Depression. Southern midwives had a range of practices, most famously herbal medicines, to terminate pregnancies. In fact, one of the criticisms doctors in the South leveled at midwives was that the informality of their practice encouraged some to perform abortions.
The story of Dewey Dell Bundren in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) dramatized both the vague knowledge about abortion and some of the difficulties its illegality could cause women. Bundren tells a drugstore employee that she has ten dollars for something for “the female trouble.” The drugstore employee extorts both sex and money from her, telling Bundren he could go to jail for helping with an abortion. In the end, however, he gives her a worthless combination of drugs.
In mid-twentieth century Mississippi reproductive rights were inseparable from issues of racial imagery, morality, family definitions, and government policy. For years, white Mississippians had demeaned African Americans for having, as Greenville author David Cohn termed it, “sex without shackles,” or notions of permanent responsibility. Cohn wrote in the 1930s that “the average Delta Negro has almost no criteria by which sexual and domestic relations may be judged.” However, in the wake of mass migration from the region, the rise of federal welfare policies, and the civil rights movement, some white Mississippi leaders moved to limit the number of African American children. First, state social security policies encouraged contraception among poor African Americans; later, Mississippi, like many southern states, debated laws that would have required sterilization or imprisonment for unmarried women who had more than one child. In 1958 state representative David Glass proposed an Act to Discourage Immorality of Unmarried Females by Providing for Sterilization of the Unwed Mother. The act did not pass, but its supporters claimed that poor and unmarried African American women were having children to take advantage of national welfare policies. In the early 1970s the Mississippi legislature returned to the topic, dropped sterilization as a potential penalty, and passed a measure that made it a misdemeanor for unmarried women to have multiple children and included jail time among the possible punishments. Such public discussions involved efforts to limit the number of children born to poor women.
In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the US Supreme Court overturned state laws that prohibited the sale of contraceptives, based on the doctrine that control over one’s sexual behavior was part of a constitutional right to privacy. Numerous states, working within suggestions from the American Law Institute, enacted legal changes to allow “therapeutic abortions” that protected the life and health of mothers. In 1966 the Mississippi legislature changed its antebellum laws to allow abortion when two doctors provided written opinions saying that the abortion was necessary to save the mother’s life. The new law also allowed abortions for women who had conceived as a result of rape.
In Roe v. Wade (1973) the US Supreme Court extended the right-to-privacy argument to questions of abortion, overturning numerous state laws. The Court declared that state governments could not prohibit abortions in the first trimester of a pregnancy, could regulate abortions during the second trimester by requiring that they be performed in certain locations (such as hospitals), and could decide whether abortions were legal in the third trimester as long as exceptions could be made when mothers’ lives were threatened.
Since the 1980s Mississippi lawmakers have spent considerable energy debating the ethics, availability, and medical practices of abortion and have passed numerous laws to make abortion more difficult, complicated, and expensive. In the 1980s Mississippi required women under the age of eighteen to obtain consent from both parents before having abortions. In the 1990s the state prohibited so-called partial-birth abortions, instituted one-day waiting periods for all abortions, and required that women seeking abortions receive instruction about alternatives such as adoption and learn about “the probable anatomical and physiological characteristics of unborn children at two-week gestational increments.” In 2002 the legislature barred public funding for abortions, and two years later it required doctors to file full reports on all patients who died or needed medical treatment after abortions. A 2007 law required women seeking abortions to see ultrasound images and hear fetal heartbeats. The same year, the legislature passed a speculative law that would prohibit abortions (except in cases of rape or to preserve a woman’s life) within ten days after any future US Supreme Court decision overruling Roe v. Wade.
Statistics on abortions are difficult to interpret, but they are helpful in comparing differences over time and location. The first recorded legal abortions in the state occurred in 1971, with fewer than 100 that year and in 1972 and 1973. After Roe v. Wade, Mississippians obtained 140 abortions in 1974 and 315 the following year. The numbers then began to grow dramatically, with the Mississippi Department of Health recording 6,842 abortions in 1980, 6,448 in 1989, and an all-time high of 7,574 in 1991. The numbers subsequently trended downward, falling to 6,069 in 1994 and 5,653 in 2000 before bottoming out at 4,323 in 2005. Over the next three years, between 6,000 and 6,300 abortions per year were performed. The number has fallen every year since, reaching 4,801 in 2014. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012 Mississippi’s abortion rate—that is, the number of abortions per 1,000 women aged fifteen to forty-four—was 3.6, the lowest in the country and far lower than the 13.2 rate for the United States as a whole.
The number of facilities in the state that performed abortions has declined from four in 2005 to two in 2008 to one (in Jackson) in 2013. Though women from all of Mississippi’s counties have received abortions, Hinds County and adjacent areas have the highest numbers.
The 2011 debate over Proposition 26, widely called the Personhood Amendment, revealed the state’s divisions on the issue of reproductive rights. Observers and pollsters assumed that Mississippi’s conservative voting tendencies would enable the measure to pass there even though similar legislation had failed in other states. Church groups and nonchurch groups used religious language to argue that every individual life has a soul from the moment of conception and used legal and political language to defend the constitutional rights of the unborn. Some said that only clear rules and moral standards would lead to a decline in unwanted pregnancies. Opponents of the proposition included such established groups as the state’s medical and nursing associations, Planned Parenthood, and some church leaders as well as new organizations such as Mississippians for Healthy Families and Parents against Mississippi 26. They argued that women should have the right to control their own bodies and that doctors and their patients should be able to make decisions about childbirth without government interference. Many also noted with frustration that Mississippi’s high teenage pregnancy rates showed the need for better sex education, not more laws limiting women’s options.
Debates, lawsuits, and legislation continues. In 2018 the Mississippi legislature passed and the governor signed a new law outlawing almost all abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy.
- Johnston’s Archive website, www.johnstonarchive.net
- Rosemary Nossiff, Before Roe: Abortion Policy in the States (2001)
- Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867–1973 (1997)
- Mississippi Department of Health, Mississippi Selected Facts about Teenage Pregnancy (1995)
- Mississippi Statistically Automated Health Resource System website, http://mstahrs.msdh.ms.gov/help.html
- Rickie Sollinger, Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America (2005)
- Rickie Sollinger, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade (2000)
- Raymond Tatalovich, The Politics of Abortion in the United States and Canada: A Comparative Study (1997)
- US Centers for Disease Control Abortion Surveillance System website, http://www.cdc.gov/Reproductivehealth/Data_Stats/index.htm