Will Mississippi Be the Next State to Elect an Anti-Choice Democrat as Governor?

The next governor “will just continue this race to the bottom by elected officials" to make abortion care inaccessible, said Felicia Brown-Williams, Mississippi state director for Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates.

[Photo: Jim Hood speaks during an interview.]
Jim Hood has said he defends the state’s anti-choice laws because it is his job, but he does not “personally believe abortion is right.” WJTV 12 News / YouTube

Even if Democrats gain control of the Mississippi governor’s office this November, the state won’t have an abortion rights supporter in the office.

“It’s a pretty rough state of affairs when it comes to abortion access in Mississippi,” Felicia Brown-Williams, Mississippi state director for Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates, told Rewire.News. Only one clinic remains open in the state, Brown-Williams noted, which means many “are forced to go out of state … to access abortion care.”

Mississippi lawmakers have approved a slew of restrictions on the procedure. That includes a six-week abortion ban currently blocked by a court, a ban on telemedicine abortions, a forced waiting period, state-mandated counseling, a parental consent requirement, and a forced ultrasound requirement. A “trigger law,” which would automatically criminalize abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, is also on the books.

While the gubernatorial race “leans” Republican, according to the Cook Political Report, Democrat Jim Hood—the state’s attorney general—is running what the New York Times calls a “surprisingly competitive” race against Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

Hood doesn’t support abortion rights, but you won’t find mention of that in his campaign platform. Instead, his campaign website refers to his platform as “a working families agenda” and highlights the candidate’s support for raising teacher pay, expanding Medicaid, and providing universal pre-K.

But Hood hasn’t been silent on the issue. According to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, when asked about his stance on abortion in 2018, Hood said “I don’t believe in it” but claimed that the governor has no control over abortion rights in the state.

“I read the Bible, and I have my personal beliefs, but I’m tired of these divisive social issues,” he told the Clarion Ledger. “I want to focus on taking care of the least among us and I’m tired of seeing petty politicians get out and tell people they will do something on social issues over which they don’t have any control. The governor of Mississippi doesn’t have a durn thing to do with that—it’s decided by the federal courts and Supreme Court … There are other social issues that have created divisiveness, be it gays or whatever. People I go to church with know that Jesus talked a lot more about the poor.”

A few months later, Hood said during a speaking engagement that ending abortion in the state wouldn’t be within his power as governor, according to the Jackson Free Press, in an apparent swipe at Republicans who suggest otherwise. “The (United States) Supreme Court is going to make these decisions,” he reportedly said. “It’s not going to be the governor of the state of Mississippi. It’s not going to be the legislature. Now, they’ll get out here and run and dupe people. It’s awful to try to mislead good, church-going people who vote on one issue—mislead them, and tell them, ‘I’m going to stop it,’ and we’re going to do this, rah rah rah. I’m not going to be that kind of governor.”

Hood’s claim about the limits of gubernatorial power has been put to the test elsewhere in the South. Louisiana’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, has approved Republican-backed restrictions on abortion access since he took office in 2016. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) vetoed the anti-choice “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act” in April, and the Republican majority in the state legislature failed to override it.

By May 2019, Hood doubled down on his opposition to abortion and vowed to act on it if elected governor. “The Bible states that God knows us in the womb (Jeremiah 1:4-5), and that’s why I’m firmly pro-life,” he told Mississippi Today in a statement. “I have defended in court every single law passed protecting the unborn, including the 15-week ban and the most recent ‘heartbeat bill.’ As governor, I will defend the unborn and the laws of Mississippi.”

Hood’s decision to defend the state’s six-week abortion ban—which was signed by Gov. Phil Bryant (R) in March and is held up in court—has stirred harsh criticism from some Democrats and abortion rights advocates. “We should be able to expect better from a Democrat that claims to represent the people,” Derenda Hancock, who oversees a group of clinic escorts at Mississippi’s lone abortion clinic, told the Jackson Free Press in April.

According to the Free Press, Hood has said he defends the state’s anti-choice laws because it is his job. “I’ve defended every bill the legislature has passed on abortion. That’s my duty as attorney general,” he reportedly said, adding that he does not “personally believe abortion is right.”

Reeves, the Republican candidate, has questioned Hood’s suggestion that the governor can’t end legal abortion in the state. “As governor, I won’t be on the sidelines. I don’t take the view that there is nothing a governor can do,” Reeves said during a May campaign event announcing the formation of a coalition of anti-choice activists supporting his candidacy. “I believe that we can, in fact I believe we must, make Mississippi the safest place in America for an unborn child.”

On his campaign website, Reeves calls abortion “the greatest evil of our time” and falsely accuses Democrats of supporting “infanticide.” His website highlights his opposition to abortion rights as a key part of his platform, noting he is “100% pro-life” and vows to advance anti-choice policy should he be elected governor.

In July, Reeves was endorsed by the anti-choice Mississippi Right to Life PAC. “It is important for voters to know that we have worked with you and that you are a fearless protector of Mississippi’s unborn children,” the organization’s president, Barbara Whitehead, said in a statement on the Reeves endorsement.

The Mississippi Republican has long supported efforts to shut down the state’s last remaining abortion clinic. In 2012, Reeves admitted that a targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) bill signed into law by Gov. Bryant “should effectively close the only abortion clinic in Mississippi.” (The law’s requirement that abortion providers maintain admitting privileges at an area hospital was later blocked in court.) And in 2012, Reeves blocked a doctor from being confirmed to the state’s Board of Health, citing his affiliation with an abortion clinic.

Brown-Williams suggested that the results of this race are unlikely to make a difference when it comes to abortion rights. “Mississippi has had an anti-choice governor for as long as I’ve done this work,” she said. There are “other statewide elected officials who have a greater impact on the legislative process than the governor,” who is limited to approving or vetoing bills.

The next governor “will just continue this race to the bottom by elected officials, that we’re seeing across the country … to make [abortion] completely inaccessible,” Brown-Williams said.

Still, Brown-Williams said there is a reason to keep an eye on how the fight for abortion access continues to play out in the state. “Mississippi is often a harbinger of what’s to come for others,” she said, pointing to the state’s law banning abortion six weeks into pregnancy, before many people know they are pregnant.

“What happens here matters to everyone,” she said.