New ACLU report describes why “pregnancy is an inherent medical risk” in Mississippi

Mississippi has one of the worst maternal health infrastructures in any developed country — at an all-time high maternal and small child Mortality rates — according to a new policy paper of the ACLU of Mississippi. The paper, released in early November, focused on maternal and reproductive health care in the state.

The maternal death rate in Mississippi is twice the national average, and for black mothers it is even higher. More than half of the state’s counties also qualify as maternity desertsmeaning that more than a million residents do not have direct access to a hospital or birth center – or to one abortion clinic.

The report points to factors such as inadequate Medicaid Cover, cancellation Bans and a large number of people living in them Poverty.

Vara Lyon, an attorney for the Mississippi ACLU, authored the paper. Lyons, who specializes in reproductive justice, said she began compiling the report after Mississippi officials began doing it Establish committees to conduct research on maternal care in the state.

Lyons noted that lawmakers and government officials have insisted that abortion should not be discussed in talks about reproductive access. She recently sat down with The Gulf States Newsroom’s Maya Miller to discuss what she’s found in her research and what to expect ahead of the next legislative session.

The following transcription has been edited and shortened for clarity.

Miller: How did you come to work at the Mississippi ACLU?

Lyons: I graduated from law school in DC in 2015 and then worked for the Brooklyn DA’s office for about four years. I was there in the human trafficking unit and then went into private practice to represent sex abuse claims under the New York Child Victims Act. I have conducted investigations into human trafficking for sexual exploitation and have also conducted civil litigation involving victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. My career had a feminist aspect that dealt with many female victims and I ended up at the ACLU in September 2021, moved back to Mississippi and was interested in getting involved in a job that would allow me to work in the reproductive field work justice.

Vara Lyon

Photo courtesy of ACLU of Mississippi

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Vara Lyons has prosecuted child abuse, reproductive rights and sex trafficking crimes. She recently returned to Mississippi to work with disenfranchised voters and reproductive justice, which she says the two are linked through the Mississippi ACLU.

Why did you return to Mississippi?

I’m originally from Mississippi and had planned to move to London with a company I worked for, which ultimately fell through. I had been doing the New York thing for six years. Coming back, having left when I was 16 and now returning in my 30s, I met many forward-thinking and trusting people who genuinely wanted to make Mississippi, and Jackson in particular, a better place. I have found that many of the cultural adjustment difficulties I had as a teenager and throughout my childhood have actually gotten much better. I’ve found more of a community here, and I realized that the reason I want to work to make Mississippi a better place is because I see spots of that in the community and in people who are doing this work and succeeding. I wanted to be part of it.

Tell me a little bit about the process of how you started this policy statement. What was it like diving into the research and looking at maternal data across the state?

When I accepted the ACLU position, I read a lot, a lot about the jurisprudence behind Roe v. Wade researched what led up to the cases that led up thereafter and followed the Dobbs decision really hard. Once the arguments have been heard and [I saw] As the dish stacked up, I had kind of a premonition of how Dobbs was going to turn out. I don’t think we could have been prepared for how devastating it was. As much as I Lt. gov. [Delbert] Hosemann’s Deputy Chief of Staff, who called me to talk about the committee, concerned me that they insisted on not talking about the abortion exemptions. They thought it was too political. I had a long talk with her about it and I think it’s really something you can’t avoid. I think the ability to have an abortion, the ability to choose when and if you want to conceive is intrinsically linked to the health of women and children in our state. I think the only way to avoid that is to stick your head in the sand.

As you looked at the trends in the data and compiled all of this information, what did you notice about maternal welfare in the state?

Something that really stood out to me was that I spoke to a gynecologist in Jackson, and she told me that many of these legislators don’t understand that pregnancy is an inherent medical risk. I think pregnancy is sometimes portrayed as this beautiful, feminine thing. Although it can be, it takes a lot of stress on a person’s body. I think a lot of these legislators don’t understand that when you force someone to go through an unwanted pregnancy, or maybe even carry one [nonviable] bring a fetus to delivery, you are putting your life at risk.

In your report you talk about reproductive justice. You talk about maternal mortality, but also mention teenage pregnancies. When it comes to maternal mortality and reproductive health care in the state, why do you think it’s important to talk about teens and teenage pregnancy?

Growing up in Mississippi, I didn’t go to public school. I went to private school, so they could do whatever sex education they wanted. But even then, I don’t remember really getting full sex education because you were raised in that culture of evangelical faith. We don’t talk about sex before marriage and I think that’s really harmful. I feel like we really fail to stop people from getting pregnant in the first place and then once they get pregnant we don’t give them any options.

What do you expect as we move into the 2023 session?

I worry that we’re talking a lot from lawmakers about how they’re going to create this pro-life culture. [State Attorney General] Lynn Fitch’s entire campaign to overthrow Roe v. Wade was about empowering women and life, and I just don’t see that happening. In the past session we had bipartisan support for expanding Medicaid after childbirth, which is what I talk about in the report about how we just don’t have enough Medicaid coverage to help women, especially if they are post-pregnancy with postpartum depression or face other medical complications. I know there will be another push and I hope it will pass, but [State House] Speaker Philip Gunn refused to vote on the bill and I don’t think his position has changed.

We also know from interviews he has given that he is OK with a 12-year-old child being forced to carry a pregnancy to term, even if she is the victim of incest. I fear that we will see attacks on bodily autonomy. Alliance Defending Freedom – this is the group that helped draft the 15-week ban that ultimately helped Roe v. Save Wade for Mississippi – they believe that personality begins with fertilization. You are against birth control, which prevents implantation of a fertilized egg. Scientifically, the acceptable definition of pregnancy is when a fertilized egg implants. Groups like Alliance Defending Freedom and Pro-Life Mississippi see the beginning of pregnancy as the fertilization of the egg. They are against the use of birth control or IUDs or plan B’s that interfere with implantation of that fertilized egg. I think we will defend ourselves against such bills.

In a recent radio show, spokesman Gunn said he intends to expand tax credits for crisis pregnancy centers. The budget is currently $3.5 million, but he wants to expand it to $10 million. What do you think about it?

I think it’s a slap in the face to women because these so-called crisis pregnancy centers are not healthcare facilities. We are in a state where many rural hospitals are at risk of closure. I’m talking about this in the paper where there are women in Greenwood who have to drive 45 minutes to give birth. These crisis pregnancy centers will not provide that. They will not be there when a mother has an ectopic pregnancy. They won’t be around if someone has been raped and doesn’t feel comfortable reporting it to the police because that’s the exception. You must report this rape to the police. We know that many survivors of sexual assault do not immediately go to the police. I can’t tell you how many sexual assault cases were first reported to me weeks and months later because I came in as an assistant assistant district attorney and they felt comfortable talking to me about a male young rookie cop. Reporting timeframes will make it increasingly difficult for women to obtain abortion treatment. I think it really is a plaster for a bleeding wound. I find it really unfortunate that the speaker thinks that this will solve the problem because it does not.

I think politicians need to start putting their money where their mouths are. I don’t think we can keep saying that if 60% of Mississippi births are covered by Medicaid, we won’t expand Medicaid. We actively choose not to support life if we do not invest resources in supporting these pregnancies. We cannot use crisis pregnancy centers to solve a problem that is largely medical and financial because people have access to resources and childcare. I think we need to start getting realistic and we can’t sidestep the abortion issue because it’s “too political” because equal access to abortion care makes women healthier.

Well, Wara. Thank you for joining me today.

Many Thanks. Thanks for the invitation. I really enjoyed it.

This story was produced by the Newsroom of the Gulf Statesa collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR. Support for reproductive health care comes from the Commonwealth Fund.



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