Packard Foundation Chooses Sides in a Fight in Mississippi

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which ranks among the 10 largest U.S. foundations, funds reproductive health efforts both in America and around the globe. Few funders do more to support organizations that work, in a variety of capacities, to help women decide when and how to have children.

But even a foundation with resources as plentiful as Packard’s has to focus. And in the United States, Packard is most concerned about Louisiana and Mississippitwo states that it sees as ground zero of the fight over abortion rights, sex education, and contraception coverage.

Packard is sure right about that. For example, there's only one abortion clinic in all of Mississippi, and state legislators have been gunning to shut it down, most recently by passing the harshest anti-abortion law in the country, which, among other things, would have required the clinic's doctors to obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals, which they had been unable to do. 

A federal court blocked that law this summer, but the legal battles aren't over. And a state law requiring women to have ultrasounds before abortions remains standing, as do other statutes that crimp reproductive rights, particularly in terms of health coverage.   

Mississippi is also an outlier on sex education. Even though state law finally requires the teaching of sex ed, the focus is on abstinence messages and the law doesn't require curriculum to be medically accurate. A majority of school districts use abstinence-only curricula, even though research shows that comprehensive sex education is more effective. Mississippi has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation. 

Advocates in the state are fighting to improve the situation, and this summer, Packard announced a $250,000 grant to Mississippi First for "improving access to high-quality comprehensive sexuality education, youth-friendly clinical services, and contraceptives for youth in Mississippi." 

Of course, these reproductive issues relate to the broader challenges of empowering girls and women in one of the most culturally conservative states in the nation. Working the nexus of sexuality and empowerment is another Packard grantee, the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi, which says it is "the only grantmaking organization in Mississippi entirely dedicated to funding programs that improve the lives of women and girls statewide."

The foundation makes grants to organizations throughout the state—including wellness clinics, workforce training programs, and financial literacy training aimed at building greater opportunity for women and girls. It's also been a leader in efforts to reduce teen pregnancy rates in the state, and Packard got behind that work in a big way earlier this year, with a $500,000 grant to help the foundation provide young people with the kind of comprehensive information on sexuality and reproductive health that's missing from abstinence-only sex ed courses. 

That's in sync with the big emphasis at Packard on better educating young people about sex, where it has invested heavily over the years.

One thing to note about this funder: While Packard's state-level grantmaking is restricted to groups operating in Louisiana and Mississippi, it also strongly supports national policy advocacy, education, and litigation strategies for reproductive health and rights.

The Deep South may be ground zero in the age-old battle over sexuality and personal freedom, but what happens there is deeply affected by national developments in this battle. For example: If Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion would become illegal in many southern states, including Mississippi, virtually overnight.