Mississippi Abortion Battle
week after Haley Barbour took office as governor of Mississippi
in January 2004, he promised to “end the tragedy of abortion”
by “changing hearts and minds one at a time.” Among his
first actions was to declare the period from January 18 to 25 “A
Week of Prayer Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life.” He further
allowed Pro-Life Mississippi to place 2,000 white crosses on the
statehouse lawn “in memory of unborn children who die each
the 14 months since then, this former RNC chair and White House
staffer has wasted no time in cozying up to an array of right- wing
extremists, even placing a Confederate flag on his website. Medicaid
funding and services to the elderly and disabled have been slashed;
America: The Book
has been banned in two
counties; and a host of anti-abortion measures have sailed through
the legislature, making Mississippi one of the most virulently anti-choice
states in the country. Only one clinic—the Jackson Women’s
Health Organization (JWHO)—exists, down from seven a decade-
to Barbour, Mississippi has the most sweeping “conscience
clause” in the U.S., allowing any health provider—doctor,
nurse, CNA, home health aid, pharmacist, social worker, technician,
counselor, or receptionist—to refuse to provide abortion-related
services, including referrals, to those in need. A 24-hour waiting
period between scheduling an abortion and having surgery is in place,
and women are subjected to mandatory in-person “counseling”
that, among other things, warns them of a link between abortion
and breast cancer. Forget that the National Cancer Institute has
repeatedly refuted this claim; doctors in the Magnolia State are
required by law to tell women of a purported connection. Women are
also required to view color photos of fetuses in biweekly gestational
increments. On top of this, Mississippi requires minors to get the
consent of both parents, or obtain a court order, before an abortion
can be performed unless the pregnancy is the result of documented
incest. Lastly, in a state where one in five people lives below
the poverty line, Medicaid does not pay for elective abortions.
wonder that Mississippi has one of the lowest termination rates
in the nation. Indeed, state statisticians report that abortions
fell from a high of 8,814 in 1991 to 3,605 in 2002, the last year
for which numbers are available.
essence of the fight over abortion is what is happening in Mississippi.
It is the heart of the reddest of the red states and it is where
the battle lines have been drawn,” says Susan Hill, owner of
six clinics, including the JWHO that comprise the National Wo- men’s
Health Organization. “It’s a simple battle in Mississippi.
There are two sides, with no in- betweens.”
opened the JWHO in January 1995. “I was at a meeting in DC
in 1993 or 1994 and Ellie Smeal said to me, ‘You have to do
a clinic in Mississippi or pretty soon there won’t be any providers
there.’ I didn’t realize then how prescient Ellie was.
One day my friend [longtime reproductive rights activist] Ann Rose
and I went to Jackson, looked around, met with people, and it all
fell into place. The day we conducted interviews to hire staff was
the day the Boston shootings occurred, December 30, 1994. We were
the first clinic to open after the murders.
told ourselves that we couldn’t do a clinic in Mississippi
halfway,” Hill continues. “We had to do the best clinic
possible. We needed the nicest building and the best doctors and
staff. It had to be something the community would be proud of.”
plan to create a state-of- the-art facility worked and Hill reports
that both local residents and individual feminists have been “wonderfully
supportive,” going so far as to alert staff whenever they see
anything suspicious. Still, community support has done little to
silence the anti-abortionists who have been an everyday presence
at the health center since it opened.
antis got a boost in August 2004 when the New Woman Health Center,
Mississippi’s second abortion facility, closed. Since then,
protesters, including Roy McMillan (a friend of assassin Paul Hill
and an outspoken proponent of violence against abortion providers),
have escalated their harassment of patients and staff. “They
stand in front of the clinic door and pray and shout. Roy McMillan
hollers obscenities: ‘You’re killing all the Black babies.
You’re niggers killing niggers.’ It upsets everyone. About
eight of them stand in the parking lot and get in the way of the
women coming in,” says Betty Thompson, JWHO’s former director,
now a consultant to the clinic.
the antis’ menacing presence, JWHO staff have numerous other
problems to contend with. According to Thompson, at least half of
JWHO’s patients have to travel 40 or more miles each way to
see a physician for mandated “counseling” and again on
the day of their abortion. What’s more, she classifies nearly
half of the clinic’s patients as “dirt poor.”
women come in with sacks full of change, quarters, and tell us,
‘These are my tips from the restaurant where I work.’
Others come with crumpled dollar bills. We get the scrapings. They
almost never have enough money [abortions cost between $380 and
$615] and we have to go with it, telling the boss that the woman
had as much as she could raise,” says Thompson.
the JWHO does abortions up to 16 weeks—last year Governor Barbour
pushed legislators to enact a law requiring that all abortions done
after 12 weeks be performed in a licensed hospital or ambulatory
surgical center; an injunction is in place to stop its enforcement.
Both Hill and Thompson agree that being the state’s only clinic
has put a great burden on women. “We need a clinic on the Gulf
Coast and another in the northern part of the state in order to
give needed service to the women of Mississippi,” Thompson
says. “But I can’t imagine the health department issuing
another license while Barbour is governor.”
the foreseeable future, the JWHO will continue to scramble to meet
patient needs, flying doctors into Jackson from Georgia and North
Carolina. Help, however, may be on the way. A dormant pro-choice
group, led by the Mississippi ACLU, is presently being reactivated
and Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the Mississippi Civil
Liberties Union, is hopeful that a wide coalition will form to support
the clinic, challenge abstinence funding, and design a legislative
agenda that addresses reproductive health concerns in the state.
is the co-author of
Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism
(St. Martin’s Press, 2001).