“What about the case of a 12-year-old girl who was molested by her father or uncle?” Associated Press reporter Emily Wagster Pettus asked the Republican speaker on the Mississippi House floor on Friday, June 24.
Gunn said he did not know “what the Legislature’s appetite” would be for ensuring child rape and incest victims could obtain abortions. The state’s 15-week abortion ban does not include rape exceptions, but a 2007 Roe v. Wade trigger law that could become effective soon would allow rape exceptions early in a pregnancy only if the rape was reported to law enforcement—which does not happen in most incest cases.
“No, (the law) does not include an exception for incest,” Gunn said. “I don’t know that that will be changed.”
“Do you think the Legislature should revisit that?” Pettus asked.
“Personally, no. I do not,” Gunn said. “I believe life begins at conception. Every life is valuable. And those are my personal beliefs.” (Child pregnancies carry significantly higher health risks than adult pregnancies.)
Daily Journal reporter Taylor Vance pressed Gunn further.
“So that 12-year-old child molested by her family members should carry that pregnancy to term?” he asked.
“That is my personal belief. I believe life begins at conception,” Gunn said.
“Let me say this, I want today to be about the Roe v. Wade decision. I want today to be about the fact that we have seen an end to abortion in this country. These other things that y’all are talking about are certainly things we can talk about moving forward. I do not want those things to detract from the significance of this day. I’m afraid if we get too far afield from what we’re talking about today, that will overshadow the significance of this day.
“So I want this day to be about the fact that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, the members of the House of Representatives are the ones that led out on that, it happened in this very room and we’re going to celebrate that today.”
Lawmaker Wants Rape Exceptions Repealed
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Dobbs case allowed Mississippi’s 15-week ban to go into law, which bans abortion after 15 weeks “except in medical emergency and in cases of severe fetal abnormality.”
Attorney General Lynn Fitch certified the 2007 trigger law, which would “prohibit abortions in the state of Mississippi” at any stage “except in cases where necessary for the preservation of the mother’s life or where the pregnancy was caused by rape” and that rape was reported to law enforcement. The clinic filed a state lawsuit to block the trigger law, but if they do not succeed, it will become effective on July 7.
Some Mississippi Republicans are already considering eliminating the pre-15 weeks rape exceptions entirely, however; the trigger law’s sponsor, Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, told the Mississippi Free Press in May that he would like to repeal exceptions for rape, leaving abortion as an option only in cases where a pregnant person’s life is in danger.
‘Whoop! You’re On Your Own’
Since the ruling, Speaker Gunn has said he wants to “move forward to secure strong and lasting legal protections and cultural support for life” and that he is forming a “Speaker’s Commission on Life.” He says it will address “more effective and well-funded child protections and foster care”; “more available and affordable adoption”; and “next-generation child support to hold fathers accountable, so mothers don’t bear the burdens alone.”
But during the last legislative term alone, Speaker Gunn killed or declined to support efforts to provide health care options for new mothers. This spring, Republican Mississippi Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, sponsored a bill that would have ensured low-income new mothers in Mississippi have access to postpartum Medicaid coverage for 12 months after giving birth. Currently, that coverage is only available for two months.
The Republican-led Mississippi Senate voted 46-5 for the postpartum Medicaid extension. On the Senate floor, Blackwell referenced the state’s history of passing anti-abortion laws.
“I think we’ve done an excellent job of protecting the baby in the womb. But once it’s out of the womb it’s like, ‘Whoop!’ You’re on your own,” he said.
In March, though, the bill died for the second year in a row after Mississippi House leaders refused to put it to a vote. Gunn acknowledged to AP’s Emily Wagster Pettus that his decision to spike the bill came from a fear of the appearance of “Medicaid expansion.”
Gunn Wants to ‘Keep People Off’ Medicaid
Gunn, the past chairman of the board of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, has long opposed expanding Medicaid broadly in the state, not just postpartum coverage. Studies estimate that as many as 300,000 working Mississippians who make too much for traditional Medicaid but not enough to afford health insurance could gain health-care access if the state accepted billions from the federal government to expand the program.
“As I’ve said very publicly, I’m opposed to Medicaid expansion,” Gunn told the AP on March 9, erroneously conflating general Medicaid expansion with the targeted postpartum extension. “We need to look for ways to keep people off, not put them on.”
Asked if the postpartum extension might have saved lives, Gunn offered a noncommittal quote. “That has not been a part of the discussions that I’ve heard,” he said at the time.
As he talked about a new “pro-life” agenda after the Dobbs ruling on June 24, Gunn said he “expects the churches to step up” to help pregnant women, but reiterated that he opposes expanding Medicaid or extending postpartum coverage.
“Y’all know my position on that, y’all know my position has long been that that is not a way to provide those services,” he said.
The Mississippi Free Press reached out to Gunn’s office but had not heard back at press time.
Reeves Declares ‘Sanctity of Life Month’
Other Mississippi leaders have vowed to find new ways to “promote life” since the Dobbs ruling, including Gov. Tate Reeves, who today declared June “Sanctity of Life Month.” (He has declared April as “Confederate Heritage Month” in each of the past three years).
Like Gunn, Reeves has long opposed Medicaid expansion, including during his time leading the Mississippi Senate as lieutenant governor.
“Mississippi must now turn to the work ahead,” Reeves’ proclamation says, “to take every step to support mothers and children through policies of compassion, to ensure every baby has a forever family that loves and cherishes them, and to build and sustain our new pro-life agenda—a culture that values the inherent dignity of every individual, restores the wonder of life, and, in President Reagan’s enduring reminder, champions the ‘sense of the worth and dignity of every individual.’”
Mississippi boasts the nation’s highest infant mortality rate, highest fetal mortality rate, lowest overall life expectancy rate, and highest COVID-19 death rate. From 2013 to 2016, Mississippi’s pregnancy-related maternal mortality rate was 1.9 times higher than the U.S. as a whole, with Black women hurt the most.