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The State of Abortion in Mississippi; A View of the Country's Future?

Jackson Women's Health Organization is the last abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi, and if anti-choice protesters have their way, it too will shut its doors. The state had seven clinics, but slowly each has been closed. Roe v. Wade secures women's rights to choose to terminate a pregnancy but the lack of access to services precludes many women in Mississippi from exercising this right.

The Jackson clinic is located squarely in the Bible Belt in a state in which an overwhelming majority of elected officials are anti-choice. For example, the state's Governor, Haley Barbour, issued an official proclamation designating the seven days leading up to the anniversary of Roe v. Wade as "a week of prayer regarding the sanctity of human life."1 According to the same proclamation, Barbour also ordered the placement of small white crosses on the lawn of the State Capital "in memory of the unborn children who die each day in America."2

Susan Hill, the owner of the Jackson clinic, explained, "Mississippi is the picture of the future. It's the perfect laboratory for any restriction [on abortion] - there's no way, politically, that it won't sail through the legislature."3

Mississippi has some of the harshest abortion restrictions in the country. For example, it has one of the most sweeping conscience clauses in the country, allowing any health care provider to refuse to provide any abortion-related service. The state's laws also require women to wait at least 24 hours after an initial consultation with a doctor before having an abortion. Mississippi is also one of only two states which require the written consent of both parents before a minor can obtain an abortion, though a judicial bypass option is available.

Anti-choice activists hail Mississippi's policies. Pat Cartrette, the executive director of Pro-Life Mississippi, a Christian anti-choice group in the state, says that her group no longer advocates for restrictive abortion policies because all of their priorities have been enacted by the state. Instead, the group is focusing their efforts on closing down the last remaining abortion clinic. She explained, "We don't need to wait for the Supreme Court to outlaw abortion…If we shine the light on the abortionists and the abortion industry, it will self-destruct, and we're seeing that happen in Mississippi."4

Anti-choice protesters are pleased that there is now only one clinic left in the state. Roy McMillan, who has been protesting outside Mississippi clinics for 25 years, said, "thankfully we've arrived at a time I always wanted - where the women have to come through us."5 He continued, "I would love our state to be the first to be abortion-free…The governor should send the Highway Patrol and the National Guard to close this clinic down."6 McMillan has been arrested over sixty-two times and has been a controversial activist over the years. He has threatened violence against clinic staff and once said he was inspired by protesting with Paul Hill, an activist who later killed an abortion doctor.7

Despite constant harassment by anti-choice protesters, the Jackson Women's Health Organization continues to operate and see patients. Betty Thompson, a previous director of the clinic and now a consultant, said, "we're just going to have to fight each time… As long as we're in compliance with the laws, I think we'll be able to function."8 She said the restrictions are hard for the patients, particularly for low-income women who must find money both to pay for the procedure as well as to stay in the area overnight to fulfill the 24 hour waiting period requirement. Still, she says, "a young woman who's made up her mind to have an abortion will find a way to pay for it. She'll sell whatever she has at a pawn shop, steal, prostitute herself. She'll run in here - not walk, but run."9

Women with the means to do so often travel outside of the state to access abortion services. Planned Parenthood does not operate a clinic in Mississippi, but instead monitors the state from a neighboring office in Alabama. Larry Rodick, the head of Planned Parenthood's Alabama office, explained, "some Mississippi women drive across the state line to get abortions, but the poorest of the poor are either having the kids or getting a back-alley abortion. Some of these women probably end up getting sick and dying, though we'll never know because they don't put it on the death certificate."10

Many pro-choice activists are worried that what is happening in Mississippi is a glimpse of what may happen in the near future. "It's the canary dying in the mine," said Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "It's what can happen if the constant strategy of chipping away at Roe is not met with sufficient push-back from the pro-choice movement," she warned.11

For the 98 percent of Mississippi women who live in a county without an abortion provider, it is almost as if Roe v. Wade was not still in existence. Susan Hill, who was a social worker before Roe, explained, "Mississippi is like the rest of the country was before 1973." She said that the women who arrive at her clinic "have that same look in the eye now. They have to go through the same kind of struggles."12

There are some in Mississippi, however, who are fighting back against the anti-choice protesters. The Mississippi affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women are starting an abortion-rights coalition which will work to challenge the anti-choice protesters as well as counter abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in Mississippi schools.

Meanwhile, the clinic is determined to stay open no matter what. Susan Hill, the clinic owner, said, "The state and the protesters are determined to close us and we're determined to stay open. It's the classic fight to the finish."13

References

  1. Sharon Lerner, "Post-Roe Postcard," The Nation, 7 February 2005, accessed 25 January 2005; Governor Haley Barbour, "A Proclamation," January 2005, accessed 25 January 2005.
  2. Lerner, "Post-Roe Postcard;" Governor Barbour, "A Proclamation."
  3. David Crary, "Mississippi Tries Everything to Curb Abortions," Houston Chronicle, 27 December 2004, A10.
  4. David Crary, "Mississippi Abortion Clinic Stands Alone," LA Times (CA), 2 January 2005, A21.
  5. Crary, "Mississippi Tries Everything to Curb Abortions."
  6. Ibid.
  7. Lerner, "Post-Roe Postcard,"; Jerry Mitchell, "Killer of abortion doctor was active locally," Clarion-Ledger, 31 August 2003, accessed 25 January 2005.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Crary, "Mississippi Abortion Clinic Stands Alone." Lerner, "Post-Roe Postcard."
  11. Ibid.
  12. Associated Press, "Mississippi: Window into future of abortion debate," CNN.com, 28 December 2004, accessed 25 January 2005.

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