Will Mississippi Close Its Last Abortion Clinic?

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Forty years after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, one state may be on the verge of becoming abortion-free.

clinic-still-top.jpgA still from the upcoming film The Last Clinic by Maisie Crow

It was the week before Thanksgiving and Dr. Willie Parker was making small talk with a group of patients at an abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi. "What are your plans for the holidays? What's your mother cooking?" They laughed as they discussed turkey and dressing. After a bit more chatter, Parker got serious. "I hope this will get done what you want to get done," he said as an assistant went around the room, dispensing a pill per girl along with small plastic cup of water.

Some of the half-a-dozen young women in the room were awkward, others assured. They were skinny, overweight; some were still in braces. Some were in high school and had mothers waiting for them in the next room. Some had children at home.

"If you feel nauseated, eat some Jolly Ranchers," Parker continued. "Which flavor do you like?" Parker was usually Latinate in his speech but he was going "colloquial" today, as he put it. Like most of his patients, he is black and from the South. And as he is in his 50s, he also reminds some of them of their fathers and uncles--or the way they wished their fathers and uncles were in moments of crisis. All the girls in this session were receiving the "abortion pill," or mifepristone. Within the next few hours, they would start to cramp and their pregnancies would be terminated.

Parker is an abortion provider. But he is also the plaintiff in a case that may have extreme political consequences. Jackson Women's Health Organization is the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, and state legislators are trying to shut it down: The next court date is at the end of January. Republican Governor Phil Bryant has called it "the first step in a movement, I believe, to do what we campaigned on: to say that we're going to try to end abortion in Mississippi."

If the effort is successful, it will be an "enormous victory" for the pro-life movement, said Carole Joffe, a long-time scholar of abortion rights at University California at Davis. "There's a competition within the Red States to see if they can be the first to close all the clinics." 

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It's been 40 years since Roe vs. Wade made abortion a constitutional right across the land. But if states can't make the practice illegal, they can pass stringent new laws. In Virginia, for instance, the state legislature recently regulated the location of bathrooms and the sizes of the hallways within clinics, requirements that have been deemed impossible to follow.

In April 2012, the Mississippi legislature passed House Bill 1390, which requires abortion providers to gain hospital admitting privileges. Since then, Parker and the other physicians at the clinic have been rejected by the area's seven local hospitals. Five rejected them outright because they were opposed to being associated with an abortion provider, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. One wrote that giving doctors admitting priveleges "would lead to both an internal and external disruption of the Hospital's function and business within this community."

If the Jackson clinic is closed, the 2,000 women who go there for abortions each year will need to travel out-of-state. That will mean paying for bus fare or gas, as well as covering childcare and the loss of wages. There will also be hotel fees: many nearby states require a 72-hour waiting period between a state-mandated counseling session and an abortion. And the procedure itself can cost $450 or even more. (Several of the women in the waiting room of the Jackson clinic said they had received financial assistance from the National Abortion Federation.) All of this may make abortions prohibitively expensive for many Mississippi women, who are among the poorest in the union. According to the latest census, Mississippi had a poverty rate of 22.6 in 2011. The clinic's clientele fall disproportionately into this poorest sector.

The bill's supporters insist they aren't trying to make things difficult for low-income women; they're simply trying to protect them. Outside the clinic, protestors, seated on foldable lawn chairs, are eager to tell visitors about the medical risks of abortion, handing out leaflets and models of fetuses. One woman, 64-year-old Ester Mann, has been picketing the clinic for many years and has been arrested twice. She says the clients who come there are "disdaining God" and the "precious gift" of pregnancies. She is eagerly awaiting the court decision later this month as she sits outside the clinic, day after day, praying for it to close.

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