by Bobby Harrison
The issue of abortion is in a kind of limbo in Mississippi despite the state being viewed as perhaps the most staunchly anti-abortion state in the nation.
Many state politicians like to make that claim.
Because of bills passed by the Legislature and signed into law by multiple governors, abortion is prohibited in nearly every circumstance in Mississippi. Yet there is a 1990s state Supreme Court ruling that provides a right to an abortion under the Mississippi Constitution. That ruling, in theory, would trump those laws.
But still, no provider is willing to provide abortions in Mississippi because of the fear that law enforcement and state courts would ignore that basic legal tenet that the constitution trumps laws.
The abortion conflict could be solved by one of two ways: by the state Supreme Court overturning its earlier ruling, or by lawmakers amending the Mississippi Constitution.
But it appears staunchly anti-abortion Mississippi legislative leaders are afraid to try to amend the Constitution because to do so would require allowing the people to vote.
Polls over the past several months surprisingly show Mississippians almost evenly divided on the emotional and contentious issue, with some polls even saying a plurality supports abortion rights.
In every state where abortion has been on the ballot during the past year, including conservative controlled states, proposals to expand abortion rights have prevailed.
The latest Republican, anti-abortion state where voters might approve abortion rights is Ohio. On the same day earlier this month that Mississippi held its party primary elections, Ohioans rejected a proposal to make it more difficult to pass initiatives placed on the ballot by voters. That vote was directly related to abortion.
Ohio’s state Republican leaders, who like their counterparts in Mississippi are anti-abortion, were trying to make it more difficult for voters to approve a proposal to place in their constitution a right to an abortion by requiring approval by 60% instead of a simple majority of voters. An initiative that Ohio voters gathered the mandated number of signatures will be on the November ballot to guarantee that right to an abortion. Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal to make it more difficult to pass that initiative and any future ones.
That vote in Ohio underscores the fact that while the initiative process is alive and well and being protected in some states, it was taken away from Mississippians and politicians have refused to restore it. That refusal could be directly related to abortion.
Mississippi’s initiative process was ruled unconstitutional on a technicality by the state Supreme Court in 2021. In both the 2022 and 2023 sessions, lawmakers did not restore it even though legislative leaders had committed multiple times to doing so.
Mississippians who support abortion rights should not expect any relief from the upcoming November election. Republicans, who generally are against abortion, are expected to win and maintain their legislative supermajorities.
And both major gubernatorial candidates say they are anti-abortion. Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves is a vocal abortion opponent. Challenger Brandon Presley, like many recent statewide Democratic candidates, says he is also anti-abortion.
Perhaps the Legislature in the upcoming 2024 session will put a proposal before voters to restore the initiative process. If they do, and voters do the expected and vote to restore the initiative, they in theory could then bypass the Legislature and place an initiative on the ballot to let the public decide the abortion issue.
Presley has even called on his opponent, the incumbent Reeves, to call a special session and try to get reluctant legislators to approve restoring the initiative immediately.
But abortion supporters should not get too excited about a chance to vote on abortion even if the initiative is restored. Before the Senate under Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann killed the restoration of the initiative during the 2023 session, the House had passed an initiative proposal that would have prohibited voters from using the process to place abortion on the ballot.
To highlight the changing dynamics of the abortion issue, it should be pointed out that the ban on a vote on abortion was the brainchild of House Speaker Philip Gunn. Before then, in 2012, Gunn had proposed placing before voters an amendment to the Constitution to ban abortion.
Now he and other Mississippi politicians appear afraid to let the public vote on abortion.
It would, no doubt, be embarrassing to those politicians if voters in the state that brought to the U.S. Supreme Court the case that overturned the national right to an abortion ended up approving abortion rights at the ballot box.