On March 6, when South Dakota's governor signed into law a policy that bans abortion unless the woman's life is in danger, women's rights advocates all across the country began preparing for a battle that could bring Roe v. Wade back to the Supreme Court. But while Planned Parenthood takes aim at the old white men trying to impose their values on the women of South Dakota, they should take notice that in the Deep South, it's the people themselves who may turn the clock back on the right to choose.
Two blocks away from "the only whole foods restaurant" in the state of Mississippi stands a pink stucco building with black cast iron gates. The unkempt, steely-eyed man walking the grounds isn't begging for change; he's security. It's the Jackson Women's Health Organization (JWHO) — abortion ground zero.
In the 1990s, Mississippi had as many as seven abortion clinics, but a campaign of blockades, death threats to doctors, and a governor and legislature who, if they could, would ban abortion quicker than you can say "Bible Belt" have made the JWHO the state's sole remaining place to get an abortion.
Surprisingly, there's only one protester outside today. Overweight, with hair hanging over his eyes, Matthew seems like a guy who could just as easily be hanging out at a Phish show. He hands out brochures with pictures of aborted fetuses, and extensive (mis)information about the perils of the procedure. He's holding court with two men who are accompanying women for their pre-abortion exams, and I ask them all about a ballot petition that's just begun to circulate in Mississippi, which would ban abortion in all cases except if the mother's life were in danger. Matthew hasn't heard of it yet, but predictably is in full support. More surprisingly, the other two men also say they'd vote for the ban if it gets the 107,000-plus necessary signatures and appears on the ballot in November of 2006.
Inside the clinic, more than half a dozen women sit in complete silence, save for Days of Our Lives droning on the TV. This afternoon all the patients are African American (overall they're 60-70 percent of the clientele), and several of them have hoods pulled over their heads. Some of the estimated 65 patients a week may have traveled several hundred miles from Alabama, Louisiana or Florida, and they'll have to stay the night in Jackson. Mississippi already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country; women must get counseled at least 24 hours before the procedure (by law the session must include a mention of the risk of breast cancer, which the National Cancer Institute says there is no scientific evidence to support), and minors must get both parents' written permission.
Last year, a state Supreme Court judge struck down a Mississippi law that would have required women to go to hospitals or outpatient surgical facilities for abortions past 13 weeks. The catch, noted the judge, was that hospitals will almost never perform the procedure, so effectively, the law would have banned abortions at that stage. Back-door methods like these may end up making Mississippi the first abortion-free state, without a need for the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Closure of the JWHO, an acknowledged goal of local pro-lifers, would achieve a de facto ban.
While Mississippi's ballot initiative effort slowly gains steam, the South Dakota law, scheduled to go into effect July 1, was the pro-life movement's official warning shot. Emboldened by the recent appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, many believe that any abortion ban will be challenged all the way to the top, and are hopeful the new justices will tip the balance toward overturning Roe. The possible retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens means yet another Bush appointee could take the bench before any challenge is heard, and laws like South Dakota's are being considered by legislators in at least five other states. The anti-abortion movement is split, however, with many theorizing that even with Roberts and Alito, the five votes needed to overturn Roe v. Wade are not yet a sure thing; they're concerned South Dakota has jumped the gun, and a defeat in court would bolster the precedent to uphold Roe when it faces future challenges.
Back outside the clinic, Matthew has found his mark. He sits on the curb, in deep conversation with Brittney Hopkins, a 19-year-old African—American girl in a stocking cap. He's making headway, it seems, and Hopkins seems shocked to learn what he's told her.
"Look at this," she implores her cousin Jeremy, who drove her to the clinic. She points at a picture of an aborted fetus at 21 weeks.
"I don't wanna look at it," protests Jeremy.
"Nah, be real ... look at this child ... I was not even expecting nobody to be here, to hand me no shit like this. Look at what the fuck they doin' to kids,
man. My Momma ain't do this shit to me. Fuck that."
Matthew reassures Brittney that "God is opening up her heart," and says he'll call a woman who provides free ultrasounds, and sometimes delivers babies at no cost for women considering abortion. "Matter of fact," Matthew excitedly explains, "right now, she's got a Chinese woman staying with her, who came out here thinking about getting an abortion."
The prospect of a place to stay may be the tipping point for Hopkins, who says her father would not accept her having a child. "I had it so rough, I had my clothes packed. I was about to leave." She chose instead to have her cousin drive her more than an hour from Jefferson Davis County to the clinic for an abortion. Despite his explanation that he "never had a place to call home," Jeremy, who is against abortion, says he's willing to move out of Brittney's father's house too, and help her with her child. He also encourages her to save $100 by not paying for her ultrasound, "so that you can get your own place, that way when you do have your kid, you'll be able to say you got your own home."
When Matthew hears that Brittney likely won't be allowed back in her father's house, his voice grows concerned; that free place to stay he alluded to may not be such a sure thing after all. Now he asks if she has anyone else who can help her.
Brittney hesitates. "My cousin!" she blurts out, trying to sound confident, but her eyes look confused.
"I'll do what I can," Jeremy assures her.
Mississippi has the highest teen birth rate in the country. And although African Americans make up only 37 percent of the state's population, more than half the kids in foster care and in the state's adoption system are black. It's anybody's guess what will become of Brittney's child, which is due on September 10 or 11, especially since she acknowledges she's been steadily drinking and smoking during her pregnancy. But Brittney figures she's to blame for any future birth defects. "Now I gotta deal with that. Cause that's my fault, because I knew."
In the past half hour Brittney's become a rabid pro-lifer before my very eyes, arguing that, "when it comes down to killin' a child, do I think I should have a choice to kill the child or to keep it? ... I feel like no, I shouldn't have a choice." She's even threatening to go inside the clinic and yell at the staff and patients that they're killers.
But the women inside are saved from Brittney's wrath. Matthew gets off his cellphone and shouts the good news that he's arranged a free ultrasound elsewhere.
"They can do it right now if you want to."
Brittney jumps up. "Hell, yeah, let's go!"
Three votes for banning abortion get into two cars, and turn onto State Street toward downtown Jackson.
Andrew Stelzer is a reporter and news anchor for WMNF-88.5 FM.