Governor Tate Reeves. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

State leaders this week scrambled to clarify that prohibiting contraception isn’t on the table in Mississippi after Gov. Tate Reeves declined on national television to rule out a ban on contraceptives. 

But neither Reeves or Speaker of the House Philip Gunn answered questions from Mississippi Today asking whether they consider intrauterine devices (IUDs) and Plan B – which anti-abortion lawmakers in Louisiana have proposed outlawing – to be contraceptives. Legislators in Idaho have suggested they could ban Plan B, while lawmakers in Missouri have sought to label IUDs and Plan B as abortion-inducing, which doctors say is inaccurate. 

Meanwhile, family planning providers in Mississippi are focused on what they see as the bottom line in the wake of a leaked draft opinion that suggests the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade: Contraceptives of all types are legal in Mississippi, and nothing in the draft opinion itself would change that. 

However, such a ruling would make access more important in a state with such poor outcomes for women and babies. Mississippi has one of the country’s highest rates of unplanned pregnancy and maternal mortality and the highest infant mortality rate.

“What we want to reinforce is that contraception is legally accessible,” said Jamie Bardwell, one of the co-founders of Converge, the nonprofit now administering Mississippi’s $4.5 million federal family planning grant. “There is no law on the table that would limit that right now. A majority of women have used it, and we do anticipate that any future limits on access to abortion will increase the demand for contraception.” 

One Delta group is already taking action. More than half of counties in the rural region have no OB-GYN. The Delta is home to about a third of all Black Mississippians, who are about three times likelier than white Mississippians to die of pregnancy-related complications and more likely to lose their babies before their first birthday.

Plan A, the mobile health clinic established to expand access to reproductive health care in the area, announced in an email Wednesday that it plans to distribute emergency contraception to more than 250 patients over the next three months, as well as free pregnancy tests.

Reeves said Sunday morning in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper that he believes life begins at conception. When pressed, he declined to say whether he considers “conception” to mean when an egg is fertilized or when there is implantation in the uterus, usually about five to six days later. 

In response to a follow-up question about whether the state would consider banning certain forms of contraceptives, Reeves said, “That is not what we are focused on at this time.” 

The precise meaning of “conception” matters, because some IUDs that usually work by preventing fertilization can also stop a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. Laws stating that life begins at fertilization could thus ban certain forms of birth control. 

They could also criminalize emergency contraceptives like Plan B, which most commonly prevents pregnancy by stopping ovulation but can also stop implantation

In Louisiana, a legislative committee approved a bill that would make abortion a homicide and states life “should be equally protected from fertilization to natural death.”

Reeves posted a Twitter thread later on Sunday providing “some clarification” on his interviews with Tapper and NBC’s Chuck Todd.

“I’m not interested in banning contraceptives,” he wrote.

Mississippi Today asked Reeves’ office this week whether he considers IUDs to be contraceptives. The office responded with a statement that did not directly answer the question. 

“The Governor has been clear that he has no interest in banning contraceptives,” the statement from a spokesperson said.

Mississippi Today asked a second time if the spokesperson would directly answer whether Reeves considers IUDs and Plan B to be contraceptives. She did not respond.

Philip Gunn is the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn issued a statement saying that the House wouldn’t move legislation banning contraceptives shortly after Reeves’ television interviews. 

“Gov. Reeves’ recent interviews caused confusion on the future of contraceptives in MS after a ruling on Dobbs,” he said on Twitter. “The scaremongering on the left intended to make pro-life states look extreme won’t work. Rest assured, @MSHouseofRep wouldn’t move legislation banning contraceptives.”

Gunn’s office did not respond to phone calls and text messages from Mississippi Today asking whether he considers IUDs and Plan B to be contraceptives.

Reeves’ Twitter thread on Sunday claimed that banning contraceptives has “never been a conversation here.”

But Mississippi lawmakers in the past have supported measures that could have criminalized certain forms of contraceptives. In 2011, many backed a constitutional amendment that sought to define life “to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof.” Opponents argued that if passed, it would ban both contraceptives and  in vitro fertilization (IVF), and 58% of voters rejected it.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, the author of many anti-abortion bills, said in an interview with Mississippi Today that he doesn’t anticipate reviving “personhood” legislation because the state’s trigger law will ban abortion in almost all cases. He said he is not interested in banning contraceptives. 

“I’m in favor of all the contraceptive options, short of an abortion,” he said.

The anti-abortion movement contains a range of views on contraceptives. Some see them as a way to reduce abortions, while others oppose them for the same reasons they oppose abortions, believing that life begins at fertilization. Groups like Students for Life of America and Americans United for Life have labeled IUDs and Plan B as “abortifacients,” or a drug or chemical that induces an abortion. 

While there is only one abortion clinic in Missisisippi, IUDs and other forms of long-acting, reversible contraceptives (LARCs) are common. These forms of birth control are the most effective: a copper IUD is more than 99% effective at preventing pregnancy, compared to about 85% for male condoms. 

Family planning providers in Mississippi are preparing for an end to legal abortion access in the state. 

In addition to distributing emergency contraception and pregnancy tests, Plan A said it is working with local OB-GYNs to add prenatal services. 

“Mississippi has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the country and banning abortion will lead to an increase in high-risk pregnancies with no plans to reduce the barriers to care faced by pregnant people,” the email said. “Plan A will help to fill that gap.”

Converge, which administers federal funds to ensure low-income Mississippians can access birth control and other reproductive health services, is focused on rolling out telemedicine to make it easier for people to get prescriptions. 

“I think that we are all preparing for the decision, when it comes, to create a higher need for contraception and a higher need for clear and accurate public communications around the availability of contraception,” said Converge co-founder Danielle Lampton.

Mississippians who use Title X services have historically been less likely to receive highly effective LARCs and more likely to wind up with the pill or male condoms. 

“We don’t want the community to be confused by what’s going on in the news,” said Jitoria Hunter, director of external affairs at Converge.

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Isabelle, an Atlanta native, covers health as part of Mississippi Today’s community health team. Prior to joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Biloxi Sun Herald and a Report for America corps member.