Flanked by cheering and applauding Republican members of the House, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, puts away his speaking points after presenting the House's position on their state income tax elimination legislation before reporters at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

In 2012, his first year as speaker of the Mississippi House, Philip Gunn authored a resolution that would have made abortion illegal under the state constitution.

House Concurrent Resolution 83 read, in part, “to provide that nothing in the (state) Constitution shall be construed to grant to any person the right to choose to have an abortion.”

The resolution would have given Mississippians an opportunity to vote on the hot button issue of abortion.

But Mississippians never got the opportunity to vote. The resolution died in the House Constitution Committee when it was not taken up for consideration.

Perhaps it died because Gunn was afraid of how Mississippians would vote. At least that is what it looks like now. Speaker Gunn’s House has passed a proposal to restore the state’s initiative process that allows citizens to gather signatures to bypass the Legislature and place issues on the ballot for the electorate to decide. But under the legislation that passed first the Constitution Committee and later the full House, the initiative cannot be used to place abortion on the ballot.

Mississippi’s initiative process, first enacted in 1992, was ruled unconstitutional in 2021 by the Mississippi Supreme Court because of a technicality. Gunn was among multiple legislators who vowed to fix the concerns of the Supreme Court and to restore the process. He even proposed a special session in 2021 to immediately restore the initiative.

Almost two years later, legislators still have not restored the process. And now Gunn and House leaders want it restored, but with the caveat that it cannot be used to amend the state’s almost complete abortion ban.

During the final weeks of the legislative session, House and Senate leaders will be trying to hammer out a final agreement on the resolution to restore the initiative. Whether the final version will include the abortion ban will be closely watched.

Gunn and countless other politicians often have said that Mississippi is an anti-abortion state with the vast majority of the citizens opposing abortion.

“I think the majority of Mississippians would be pro-life,” Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, argued on the House floor while urging his colleagues to vote for the initiative measure with the abortion ban. “…I believe that with all my heart.”

Bain said based on the politicians elected in Mississippi, especially on a statewide level, “it is safe to say the state of Mississippi is pro-life.” Former Gov. Ray Mabus who served from 1988 until 1992 was perhaps Mississippi’s last statewide officeholder to publicly voice support for abortion rights. He was defeated for re-election.

But if Bain and others so strongly believe Mississippi is an anti-abortion state, why the fear of letting voters express those values?

Other than proclaiming Mississippi is pro-life, there has been no explanation from House leaders of why abortion is singled out in their proposal as one of the few issues that cannot be addressed through the initiative process.

Of course, the one time that Mississippians voted on the issue of abortion under the old and now invalid initiative, they rejected the so-called personhood amendment. The personhood proposal on the ballot in 2011 defined a person “to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the equivalent thereof.” Then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said at the time a vote against personhood would be “a victory for Satan.”

The same electorate that defeated the personhood amendment by a 58% to 42% margin, presumably inspired by Satan, also voted overwhelmingly for Bryant as governor.

Months later, Gunn, as the newly elected speaker, introduced a resolution to place an abortion ban in the state constitution. Of course, a change to the state constitution must be ratified by the voters.

For whatever reason, Gunn opted then not to advance his abortion constitutional ban through the legislative process and place it on the ballot for voters to decide.

Now as Gunn ends his tenure in the Mississippi House and as speaker, he is trying to amend the state constitution to prevent a vote on abortion.

Notably, since the U.S. Supreme Court in a Mississippi case overturned the national right to an abortion in 2022, six states have voted on abortion. In all of those states, the electorate voted — usually by large margins — to expand abortion rights. Some of those states, such as Kansas, Kentucky and Montana, are seen as conservative as Mississippi.

Gunn and a majority of the Mississippi House are trying to ensure Mississippi voters never have the opportunity to join that list of states to express their views on abortion rights — whatever they might be.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.