Dr. Thomas Dobbs has never been involved in political battles over reproductive health, but his name has become a stenography for a lawsuit that could end abortion rights in the United States. If he has feelings about the situation, he almost keeps them to himself.
The Mississippi Senior Public Health Officer is listed in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a dispute over a U.S. law that will ban most abortions after week 15, but could be used to repeal Rowe v. Wade.
A draft opinion of the US Supreme Court has expired shows that a conservative majority of judges are ready to use the case to overturn the remarkable 1973 court ruling establishing abortion rights across the country.
Dobbs, 52, is a doctor in charge of the state health department that regulates the only abortion clinic in Mississippi. As the state’s chief health officer, he is the person to be named in any case involving abortion or other health issues, he explained in a recent Twitter post.
So while the name at the heart of the abortion debate may eventually change from “Roe” to “Dobbs”, it is not the health officer, but the Attorney General’s Office that is dealing with the state case.
“I was not directly involved in any component of this judicial action,” he wrote in the publication.
Liz Charlotte, director of communications for public health, strongly confirmed Dobbs’ nominal role and rejected the Associated Press’s request to interview him because she said he “did not personally initiate the case.”
“The only role the Mississippi Department of Health has in relation to abortion facilities is the provisions that support the law, the inspection and licensing of this facility,” Charlotte wrote in an email.
Dobbs is a former state epidemiologist who became head of the health department in 2018, months after the Republican-controlled Mississippi legislature passed the abortion restriction law, which is now at the center of the lawsuit.
He has spent his career in public health, focusing not on abortion but on pushing for better outcomes in a situation suffering from high infant mortality rates and other poor health statistics.
The legal battle over abortion began when the only abortion clinic in Mississippi filed a lawsuit against the 15-week ban. The suit was originally called the Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Currier et al. The main defendant was the state health officer at the time, Dr. Mary Carrier. After she left, a judge removed Currier’s name from the case and replaced him with Dobbs.
A federal district judge blocked the entry into force of the law. When the state appealed to the Supreme Court, the name of the case was turned to Dobbs against the clinic.
During an online briefing organized by the Mississippi State Medical Association in June 2021, Dobbs was asked if his name was in the abortion case. He was quick to point out that Dr. Kenneth Cleveland was also named in the case as head of the Mississippi State Medical Licensing Board.
“He didn’t make the headline,” said Dr. Mark Horn, then president of the Medical Association, in a good-natured strike at Dobbs.
“I’m trying to get him to trade with me,” Dobbs joked.
So far, the name most associated with the abortion debate has been Jane Rowe, the nickname of a Dallas woman named Norma McCorvy, who was a plaintiff in the famous Rowe v. Wade case. Wade was Henry Wade, the Dallas District Attorney at the time.
In 1969, 22-year-old McCorvy became pregnant for the third time and wanted an abortion. McCorvy and her lawyers eventually won the court battle, but not until she gave birth and gave the girl up for adoption. She later became an anti-abortion activist. McCorvy was 69 when he died in 2017.
Another name that often comes up in the debate is that of Robert P. Casey, a former governor of the Pennsylvania Democrats who advocated abortion. In 1989, he worked with the state legislature to pass a law that placed several restrictions on abortion. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania challenged the law. In 1992, the Supreme Court upheld most of the restrictions, but also upheld the woman’s right to abortion. Casey died in 2000. The name of the case was Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
Although Dobbs did not take part in the abortion debate, he spent the last two years absorbed in a controversial health issue: the COVID-19 pandemic. At dozens of press conferences and other public appearances, he begged people to get vaccinated, wear masks and observe social distancing. He persisted as many people, including some government officials, resisted.
In August, Dobbs said he had received threats from people who believed in false conspiracy theories about him and his family as he promoted vaccination against COVID-19. Dobbs said it was a lie that his son, who is also a doctor, received a World Bank-funded ransom when Dobbs called on people to get vaccinated.
“I get zero $ from the promotion of vaccination,” Dobbs wrote on Twitter.
Before vaccinations against COVID-19 became available, well-balanced Dobbs expressed disappointment at people’s insistence on attending social events and extracurricular activities, including sports.
“Our prioritization hierarchy is extremely stupid,” Dobbs said in November 2020. “We give priority to youth sports, not just academia.” We actually prioritize it for community health, just to be honest. “
In the midst of a stressful battle with the pandemic, Dobbs said he turned to exercise and listening to music – jazz and The Rolling Stones – as ways to quit. He announced in March that he will retire at the end of July.
Dr. George Benjamin is the executive director of the American Public Health Association, one of several public health and research groups that have filed a legal bulletin criticizing the 15-week Mississippi abortion ban.
Benjamin said he was unaware of Dobbs’ personal views on abortion and the legal issues surrounding the case, and expressed doubts that Dobbs would make them public.
“Your name may be related to a legal case when you are in these jobs,” Benjamin said. “But associating your name may not be in line with your own views. You are a civil servant and unfortunately that happens when you take these jobs. ”
Benjamin said Dobbs did an “amazing” job as a Mississippi health worker during the pandemic, including remarkable work on inequality. He called him a “trusted figure who follows scientific principles.”
Benjamin’s hope, he said, was that Dobbs’ reputation was “not tarnished” on his behalf in the abortion case.
AP medical writer Mike Stob reported from New York.