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

When House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, announced he would create a special commission after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, he said the group would develop “Next Steps for Life.”

Nearly six months later, those next steps remain unclear. The Speaker’s “Commission on Life” has identified no concrete measures or specific policy proposals, several members told Mississippi Today.  

The legislative session begins in 19 days.

“We have not hammered out anything as far as I have seen for this legislative session as of yet,” said Rep. Otis Anthony, D-Sunflower, who said the commission had held about eight meetings. 

The meetings have taken place entirely in private. Gunn told members he didn’t want the commission to become a “political football,” Anthony said. Members who spoke with Mississippi Today said they could not share the names of the people they have spoken to during their meetings.

They said Mississippi Today should contact Gunn’s office for that information, but his communications director Emily Simmons did not respond to a question asking who had met with the commission.

“The Speaker’s Commission is continuing its work, and we will update you once the policy recommendations are finalized,” she told Mississippi Today. 

Members who spoke with Mississippi Today said they were divided into subgroups, like faith-based efforts and women’s health issues. They heard from numerous pastors as well as doctors. 

Other members of the committee contacted by Mississippi Today did not respond to texts, phone calls or emails. 

“In the coming weeks, we will have legislation that addresses a lot of those issues,” said Rep. Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg. “And at that time, we’ll really take it from there.”

She declined to answer other questions.

The opacity around the commission means it’s not clear what measures will have the support of the speaker when it comes to expanding assistance for moms and families in the next session, other than expanding the tax credit for crisis pregnancy centers from $3.5 million to $10 million. The centers provide pregnancy tests and some direct assistance like formula and diapers, but are not regulated by the state Department of Health and do not offer health care services.

Anthony said the group had discussed the importance of improving access to child care, particularly through faith-based organizations.

“Those in the faith-based community gotta step up to the plate now and really put your money where your mouth is,” Anthony said. “How can we maybe look at helping those mothers who may need those childcare services so they can continue to work or so they won’t lose their job?”

On the day the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade and allowing Mississippi’s near-total ban on abortion to take effect, Gunn announced he would create the commission. The Health Department estimates the ruling could result in an additional 5,000 births each year– a 14% increase in a state that has the country’s highest rates of infant mortality, preterm births and low birth weight babies. 

“With love for children and the women who bear them, we move forward to secure strong and lasting legal protections and cultural support for life, and a vibrant network of abortion alternatives,” he wrote on Twitter.

Gunn is a vocal opponent of abortion rights. After the ruling in Dobbs, he told reporters that a 12-year-old molested by a relative should carry the baby to term.

“So that 12-year-old child molested by her family members should carry that pregnancy to term?” Daily Journal reporter Taylor Vance asked at a press conference.

“That is my personal belief,” Gunn said. “I believe life begins at conception.”

It took almost three months for Gunn to name the members of the commission. In a press release at the time, Gunn said the group would focus on encouraging churches, the private sector and nonprofits to “step forward to answer the need.” 

The release said the members, who had already been working, wanted to develop plans to engage churches, expand assistance to pregnancy resource centers, expand access to adoption, create jobs for mothers, and improve foster care and child support assistance.

It’s also unclear how much Gunn and Republican colleagues in both chambers will prioritize measures designed to further restrict abortion. Abortion is almost completely banned in Mississippi thanks to a law that prohibits the use of “any instrument, medicine, drug or any other substance” to end the pregnancy of a woman who is known to be pregnant. That language clearly applies to medication abortion.

But some Republicans have said they want to see stricter controls on medication abortion, especially because advocates around the country and world have scaled up their efforts to provide access to abortion pills through the mail. 

The approach of the House Commission on Life stands in stark contrast to that of the Senate Study Group on Women, Children and Families. 

The Senate committee, led by Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, held public hearings over four days in September and October. They heard from state and national policy analysts, Mississippi obstetricians and pediatricians and state agency heads. Their hearings focused on maternal and child health care; adoption, foster care and child support; childcare availability and early intervention for kids with special needs. They’re heading into the session with a list of policy priorities.

One of the Senate study committee’s top policy recommendations, Boyd told Mississippi Today, will be extending postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months, which Gunn blocked from coming to a vote in the House last session. State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney and University of Mississippi Medical Center Vice Chancellor Dr. LouAnn Woodward endorsed postpartum Medicaid extension in their presentations to the committee.

Gunn remains opposed to the measure, which would cost the state about $7 million annually – less than the cost of his proposed tax credit for crisis pregnancy centers. 

“I don’t see the advantage of doing the postpartum thing,” he told reporters earlier this month

And his Commission on Life has not spent much time discussing it.

“Yes, it came up,” Anthony said of extending postpartum Medicaid, “but that was kind of all it did.”

The members who spoke with Mississippi Today praised the speaker’s closed-door approach and his input during meetings. 

“The speaker made it clear that he did not want to try to grandstand,” said Rep. Cedric Burnett, D-Tunica. “If we can do something to help, and we’ve figured out what to do, just do it. So that’s pretty much it. It’s not to draw any attention or anything like that.”

“Just by being there, seeing the questions that he asks the ministers – you can tell, if there is something that can help, he wants to do that,” Burnett said. 

The members of the Speaker’s Commission are: Reps. Otis Anthony, D-Sunflower; Cedric Burnett, D-Tunica; Angela Cockerham, I-Amite; Kevin Felsher, R-Biloxi; Jill Ford, R-Madison; Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg; Dana Underwood McLean, R-Columbus; Sam Mims, R-McComb; and Lee Yancey, R-Brandon.

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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.