Mississippi abortions spike despite years of restricting access by Legislature

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson

Abortion rates hit a record low across the nation in 2017, decreasing in every state except seven — including Mississippi, which saw abortion rates increase by 13 percent since 2014, according to a new report.

Going back to 2011, the state’s abortion rate increased by 16 percent — one of only six states to see an increase during that time period, despite the passage of multiple laws restricting abortion access. The increase is relatively small — 2,550 abortions in 2017 compared to 2,220 in 2011 — according to the report released this week by the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research group that tracks abortion trends, access and legislation across the country.

Due in part to the low number of total abortions and the state’s small population, Mississippi’s abortion rate remains one of the lowest in the country at 4.3 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44.

Notably, when compared to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abortion statistics, the numbers tell a different story. The CDC data counts Mississippians who’ve had abortions both in state and out of state, where as the Guttmacher report looks at in-state procedures exclusively. To understand the whole picture of women seeking abortions – especially for states with more abortion restrictions, such as Mississippi where people tend to cross state lines more fluidly for reproductive care – the distinction between in- and out-of-state rates is key.

Overall, when counting abortions performed in and out of the state, fewer Mississippians had abortions in 2015 compared to 2011, tracking with U.S trends overall.

The overall numbers differ from the Guttmacher report because the CDC numbers include women who crossed state lines for the procedure, in addition to those performed in state. In 2011, 5,578 Mississippians had abortions, 60 percent of whom went out of state to do so. In 2015, the most recent year of CDC data available, 4,699 Mississippians had an abortion — 44 percent of which occurred outside of the state. Only two states, South Carolina and Missouri, had a higher rate of women leaving the state for an abortion in 2015.

CDC in-state data from 2015, however, echo the Guttmacher report, showing a similar abortion rate in the state — the fifth lowest in the country. But when counting all Mississippians who sought abortion care in 2015, the state’s rate jumps to the middle of the country’s numbers at 8 abortions per 1,000 women — one point shy of the country’s median rate of 9 per 1,000.

State lawmakers have passed multiple laws restricting access to abortion and reproductive health care since 2011, including bans after 15-weeks of pregnancy in 2018 and a new 6-week ban this year — both of which are winding their way through federal appeals courts. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves blocked both bans and allowed the Center for Reproductive Rights, who sued the state over these and other restrictions, to merge the challenges into one lawsuit earlier this year.

A Mississippi Today analysis estimated the state’s cost of litigating these restrictions, most of which have been overturned, to be over $1 million based on state attorneys’ time and fees owed. Earlier this year, a federal judge awarded more than $700,000 in attorneys’ fees to Jackson Women’s Health Organization and Dr. Willie Parker for a 2012 case that successfully blocked an admitting privileges restriction. Those fees bring the state’s costs in attorney time and fees owed to at least $980,000, not including the most recent 6-week ban litigation.

Hillary Schneller, lead attorney for the center suing the state over the bans, said data in the new report indicates that restrictions don’t necessarily stop or reduce abortions, but instead add hurdles — like the high rate of women leaving the state to seek care.

“Restricting access to legal abortion does not change the fact that pregnant people will always need access to abortion care. Anti-abortion laws only make it more difficult and costly for people to access abortion and delays abortion later in pregnancy. If politicians really want to lower abortion rates, they should be investing in sex ed and expanding access to contraception. That’s common sense,” she said.

“Mississippi is a good example. In the last two years, the state passed two extreme bans on abortion—both of which have been blocked by the courts—instead of focusing on efforts that might actually support women and families.”

Other reproductive right advocates point to the state’s high infant and maternal mortality rates and stark cancer survival disparities — all of which tend to fall along racial lines — as areas of focus that would improve health outcomes for families.

State legislators have long heralded the goal of reducing abortion access in the state. The offices of Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves did not respond to requests for comment.