Speaking to dozens of anti-vaccine demonstrators spread out across the Sillers Pedestrian Mall near the Mississippi Capitol Building on Saturday, one of the state’s top elected officials declared that the fight over COVID-19 vaccines represents a pivotal moment in the nation’s history.

“Here we are today, facing the struggle of our lives,” Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson told the crowd, some of whom were seated in lawn chairs while their children played in an inflatable bouncy house nearby. “People of faith are speaking up.”

But Gipson, himself a Baptist minister, used the occasion to help spread several myths and misinformation to the attendees while railing against vaccine mandates.

“There are people who have sincere religious convictions about what are the chemicals and substances injected in their bodies and the bodies of their children and mandated by a government? And there are lots of people in Mississippi who are pro-life. Is anyone here pro-life?” the commissioner asked, receiving a chorus of cheers in reply.

“And you’ll never hear it in the mainstream media, but these vaccines, several of them, are manufactured through the harvesting of aborted fetal cells. That is a scientific fact. Not a theory, it’s a fact,” Gipson added.

But it is not a fact. Claims that the COVID-19 vaccines contain or are created using aborted fetal tissue have permeated right-wing social-media pages in recent months and have been amplified by the likes of the far-right Project Veritas group.

Numerous news and fact-checking organizations have debunked this myth repeatedly in recent months. In August, infectious-disease expert and practicing Catholic Dr. James Lawler explained the origin of the myth and refuted it in an article for Nebraska Medicine.

“It is true that decades ago, scientists decided to use fetal tissue to start the cell lines we use to test drugs today. However, the description of ongoing modern fetal tissue harvesting to create vaccines is dishonest sensationalism,” Lawler wrote.

The laboratory cells used to test the vaccines and other drugs, however, “are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue” and “do not contain any tissue from a fetus,” he wrote.

“As a practicing Catholic, I think the moral balance of indirectly benefitting from an abortion that occurred 50 years ago in order to take a vaccine that will prevent further death in the community is a no-brainer—especially considering that so many of the over 620,000 American deaths have occurred in the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society,” Lawler explained. He noted that the Vatican itself has endorsed COVID-19 vaccines and said there is no conflict with its anti-abortion views and the vaccine. “We need to focus on saving lives right now. We need to care for our neighbors.”

During his remarks, Gipson told the story of a young boy who had a severe allergic reaction to his childhood immunizations and whom doctors ordered not to receive other vaccines in the future.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am that young man. So I don’t have any doubt that God’s put me here at this particular point in history for this particular point,” said Gipson, who spoke in favor of an anti-vaccine legislation on March 3, 2020—less than two weeks before the state identified its first known novel coronavirus case. “There are hundreds and thousands of Mississippians like me who for medical reasons can’t get this shot, and they shouldn’t be fired and their employment terminated because they can’t do it. This is the most unAmerican thing I’ve ever heard.”

However, state and federal law permits exemptions for people who cannot receive vaccines for medical reasons. While federal law and laws in 48 other states allow religious exemptions for vaccines, Mississippi is one of just two states that does not permit religious exemptions.

Before COVID-19 arrived, states around the country had begun experiencing outbreaks from diseases like measles in recent years amid the growing anti-vaccine movement. But Mississippi has not identified a new measles case since 1992, a fact the Mississippi State Department of Health has attributed to the strict vaccine laws. A group of lawmakers attempted to weaken Mississippi’s vaccination requirements during the 2021 legislative session, but as in years past, that bill died without a vote.

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].