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‘Sneaky’ Personhood? Wicker, Hyde-Smith Sponsor Unborn Child Support Act

A man and woman, both in suit jackets, speak at a conference table
U.S. Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker are sponsoring the Unborn Child Support Act, which if passed would require fathers to pay child support starting in “the first month in which the child was conceived, as determined by a physician.” AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

U.S. Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker of Mississippi are among a group of nine Republicans who on Wednesday unveiled Senate Bill 4512, The Unborn Child Support Act, which would require fathers to pay child support starting in “the first month in which the child was conceived, as determined by a physician.”

“I hope good legislation, like the Unborn Child Support Act, gets more support now that the Dobbs decision encourages us to look more seriously at supporting mothers and their unborn children,” Hyde-Smith said, referring to the June 24 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade and allowed near-total abortion bans to take effect in states like Mississippi. 

If passed, the bill would amend Part D of Title IV of the Social Security Act in order “to ensure that child support for unborn children is collected and distributed under the child support enforcement program.”

“This legislation would help ensure women have opportunities to receive child-support payments from the earlier days of their pregnancy,” Hyde-Smith said.

‘It Is Very Sneaky’

Supporters of reproductive rights are not rushing to endorse the legislation, however. Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund co-founder Laurie Bertram Roberts told the Mississippi Free Press that she sees an effort to sneak the ideas behind Mississippi’s failed “Personhood Amendment” into federal law.

In 2011, anti-abortion organizers attempted to amend Mississippi’s Constitution to define the word “person” to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof,” theoretically banning all abortions by giving fertilized eggs and fetuses constitutional protections. Mississippi voters rejected it 58% to 42% at the ballot box that year. 

Laurie Bertram Roberts seated
Laurie Bertram Roberts, the co-founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, says the Unborn Child Support Act would introduce “personhood language” into federal law if enacted. Photo courtesy Laurie Bertram Roberts

In addition to banning all abortions, the Personhood amendment could have outlawed in-vitro fertilization and several popular forms of birth control that work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting.

Still, anti-abortion Republicans have continued to push for personhood legislation, including in another federal bill Wicker co-sponsors called the Life At Conception Act, which would grant 14th Amendment rights to fertilized eggs and fetuses. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization allowed states to implement extreme abortion bans, Chad Pecknold, a member of the board of directors at Americans United For Life, tweeted that he wanted a nationwide ban.

“’Returning it to the states’ is not our goal,” he wrote on June 24, the day of the ruling. “We will not rest, we will not weary until we abolish abortion nationally as unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.”

The current child support bill, Roberts told the Mississippi Free Press, is not so blatant as federal legislation like the Life At Conception Act.

“This is not the first time they’ve tried to insert this personhood language into a national bill,” she said. “And see, the way they’re doing it is very sneaky, the way they’re doing it is under the guise of, ‘Oh look, doesn’t this make sense?’ Because this is one of those arguments that has been coming from people who actually support abortion, which is why I tell people not to make these arguments, even in jest, like, ‘If y’all want to make us have babies, start child support at the moment of conception.’”

Hyde-Smith’s announcement pointed to a survey YouGov conducted on behalf of the Bucknell Policy Institute in June that found 47% of Americans favored requiring men to pay child-support payments “when the child is conceived.” Slightly more Democrats (53%) said they supported such a law than Republicans (47%), and women favored it over men 52%-to-39%. Among those who identified as “pro-choice,” 49% supported the legislation while 46% who described themselves as “pro-life” said the same. The survey included 1,500 respondents.

Still, with Democrats in control of the U.S. House and Senate, Roberts thinks the legislation faces long odds of passage. That could change, though, if Republicans win back control of Congress in this November’s elections.

In many states, including Mississippi, mothers can already receive retroactive child-support payments. Roberts herself said she has personally received such court-ordered payments to cover her pregnancy and prenatal care in the past.

‘Fathers Have Obligations’

Republican U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in Wednesday’s announcement that “caring for the well-being of our children begins long before a baby is born.”

“It begins at the first moments of life—conception—and fathers have obligations, financial and otherwise, during pregnancy,” he said.

Jackson Women's Health Organization
Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, closed its doors on July 7, 2022, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade and allowed the state’s near-total ban on abortion to take effect. Photo by Ashton Pittman

The bill’s other co-sponsors include Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Rick Scott, R-Fla., Roger Marshall, R-Kan., and James Lankford, R-Okla. U.S. House Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., introduced a companion bill in his chamber. No Mississippi representatives have signed onto it at present, though.

Several right-wing conservative and anti-abortion groups have also endorsed the legislation, including the Susan B. Anthony List, March For Life, the Family Research Council and Concerned Women For America. 

As not only a reproductive-rights organizer but also someone with past personal experience in Christian fundamentalism, Roberts said she thinks one goal of the bill is to increase the connection between mothers and fathers during pregnancy to foster more nuclear families. The Family Research Council and Concerned Women of America’s support for the bill, in particular, bolsters that belief, she said.

“I can understand that anti-abortion groups and FRC kind of cares about abortion, but they are very much a ‘pro-family’ organization. I just don’t think their real goal is about babies,” Roberts said. “And that’s just my experience as an ex-fundy and my critical lens after being on the ground doing this work.” 

The announcement says the Unborn Child Support Act would “provide flexibility for mothers, who do not want involvement of the father, by not requiring those mothers to receive child support”; “require judges to consult with mothers on payment plans and give mothers discretion as to whether or not child support payments will be awarded retroactively”; and “mandate that all paternity tests be at the discretion of the mother and not be conducted if the test would put the child at risk.”

‘You Can’t Get Blood From A Turnip’

Roberts worries that paternity testing in cases that require one to establish the father’s identity could prove cost-prohibitive to some women and pregnant people.

“If you’re unsure of your child’s paternity, the way it works right now is every time you get a paternity test for your child, if it’s not the father, you get charged that. It’s not cheap,” she said.

Personhood Vote Yes on 26 rally
The 2011 Personhood Amendment would have amended Mississippi’s Constitution to define the word person “to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof.” Voters rejected it 58%-42%. AP Photo by Rogelio V. Solis

Roberts also said she’s concerned that one purpose of such a law could be to allow state-level human services departments to boost their own revenues by raising more money from absent parents through fees they already collect for child support.

“I don’t think they really care about people getting support when they’re pregnant,” Roberts said. “I think their real goal is to get personhood language into a bill; and I think secondly for people to think that they care for you and want you to have support while you’re pregnant; and third for them to find another way to nickel and dime low-income and working class non-custodial parents in a way that makes money for the state.”

Roberts said she does not consider the legislation a good example of “real policy solutions.”

“Actual policy solutions would be a social safety net, things that actually would substantively and in a very stable way change people’s lives and actually change child poverty and impact maternal mortality,” she said. “But when you say, oh, we’re just going to start child support while you’re pregnant. So if I procreate with someone who is low income, then I’m still poor. You can’t get blood from a turnip.”

“… This is the only solution Republicans ever have for low-income people. It’s get married, it’s get your poor baby daddy to pay for stuff. It’s never anything to actually work on poverty. It’s never raise the minimum wage, it’s never paid leave, it’s never, ‘Let’s expand Medicaid.’ it’s never any of these actual structural things that we could do.”

Neither Sens. Wicker nor Hyde-Smith responded to a request for comment on this story by press time.

See the MFP’s full coverage and archive on abortion rights in Mississippi here and the Jackson Free Press archive here.

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