Mississippi’s last abortion clinic is almost certainly operating on borrowed time. In early May, a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion suggested that the majority-conservative bench will nullify the consitutional right to an abortion as set in Roe v. Wade. Such a decision would pave the way for significant rollbacks at the state level. An official ruling is expected in the next few weeks.
But for now, Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the clinic at the center of the high-profile case before the Court—remains open.
Cheryl Hamlin is a Massachusetts doctor who flies monthly to Jackson to provide abortions at “the pink house,” as the clinic is known because of its bubblegum-colored exterior. Once there, she typically works a three-day stint before flying home to Cambridge. Hamlin told me that May’s leak didn’t change much about her day-to-day in Mississippi but that things had changed before then: In the fall of 2021, a Texas law severely restricting abortion prompted a surge of patients to Mississippi from out of state.
I spoke with Hamlin twice recently to discuss the clinic’s plans for a post-Roe world—and what it’s like to operate while simultaneously bracing for impact.
Our conversations have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Let’s rewind back to the night of the Politico leak. That was a Monday. You were in Jackson. Had you just gotten there?
Cheryl Hamlin: Yeah. I’d flown in that day. That night, emails started coming. I’m just on so many email lists—like Planned Parenthood and NARAL and the Center for Reproductive Rights. They just all poured in.
Nyce: So then you wake up on Tuesday and go into the clinic. What was that like? Had the tenor changed?
Hamlin: Only initially on arrival. A few of us hugged, and we got back to work. We’ve all talked about it. I don’t think there was much else to be said. We still go up to 16 weeks until they tell us we can’t.
One woman said to me, “Are you going to be out of a job?” And I said, “No, no, no, I’m going to be okay. I’m worried about you guys.” And she said, “Nah, I’m taking these pills, and I’m never coming back. I’m going to be okay.” And I go, “All right, the two of us are going to be okay.” But there’s a lot of people who won’t be.
Maybe I was a little angry, I guess. We do this group counseling before I see them individually. And as part of the group counseling, I always tell people to vote. I try to be politically diplomatic: I don’t tell them who to vote for or anything like that. But that day I laid it out more bluntly than I normally do, like: This is going to overturn Roe v. Wade, which means this clinic is going to close and so is every other clinic in the South and the Midwest. And so it’s up to the states. And I did mention [Governor] Greg Abbott by name: He’s up for reelection. So those of you from Texas, you need to vote him out. I’m normally not that assertive about the politics.
Once we got back to work, it was the same as it’s been over the past few months, when we have just been slammed with people from out of state.
We get so many people from Texas or from Louisiana, because people in Louisiana can’t get an appointment, because of people from Texas. There’s a domino effect. But from April to May, there wasn’t much of a change.
Nyce: So the bigger change came earlier, in terms of seeing a surge in demand for appointments?
Hamlin: Right. In general, people could call up and just come the next day that we’re open. But now it’s like a two-week wait, and there’s a limited number of surgical slots. Rarely, there have been a couple of occasions where we couldn’t take care of someone because there just were no surgical slots before they turned 16 weeks. That never used to happen.
Nyce: When did that start happening?
Hamlin: I really noticed it maybe in March. But it’s been going on somewhat since Texas’s law went into effect, which was in September. It really hit me in March, like, Oh my God, we don’t have space for all these people.
Nyce: We’ve been in this lull period between the Politico leak and the actual anticipated decision. What does that feel like?
Hamlin: We are planning to open a clinic in New Mexico, and I’m working on getting a New Mexico license. We have talked about what we can do with the clinic in Mississippi: Depending on what the law lets us do, can it be a referral site? Can people come in and get their ultrasound and then we figure out a way to get them to New Mexico? What about fundraising? What about pills?
I’m sure that it is going to be illegal to refer or mail pills in Mississippi—that kind of already is the case now. They still have to pick it up in person; I don’t see that getting easier. But what kind of loopholes will we be able to jump through, that we’re not putting either ourselves or the women at risk?
Nyce: Is it busy trying to get ready for what could potentially happen in the next few weeks?
Hamlin: Yeah. Especially since it’s not entirely clear what the decision will be. Is this really going to happen, or is it just going to be the 15-week ban? There would certainly be repercussions for that, but it’s way better.
What things are going to be illegal? How hard are they going to make it on us to, for example, do ultrasounds on people so we can refer them out? Are we going to be able to do that?
It’s hard to plan anything right now. A lot of nonmedical people have asked me, ‘What can I do? Can I go down there and drive vans?’ I’m sure there’ll be room for people driving vans, but I just don’t know yet.
I feel like there are too many people saying, “We’ll just make sure everybody gets pills.” That’s a fine last resort. But they don’t always work. And patients might need care afterward. While many women know exactly how far along they are, some are mistaken, and they might take pills inappropriately.
The point that I want to keep hammering home is that even if people have the luxury to leave the state for their procedure or get pills mailed to them, they still need follow-up care. Are you going to go to the emergency room if you suddenly start bleeding? You’re not. I think that is going to lead, as it did pre-Roe, to a lot of illness and death, potentially.
Nyce: Where do you think that the pro-choice movement has failed in getting its message across?
Hamlin: I’ve thought about this maybe more the past month than I have the rest of my life put together. Maybe it’s just that we’ve been playing defense. Somehow the right controls the narrative. How did they become the patriots and the real religious people?
They always talk about late-term abortions, which is such a minuscule part of what we do, and most of them are for really devastating reasons. I actually got two postcards to my house. And one of them was this horrific picture of this dismembered fetus, probably around the 20-something-weeks mark. That’s not really what we’re doing in Jackson. The other one was an old picture—I don’t think this is any recent story—of a girl that died having an abortion. And I’m thinking, Oh my God, every day we hear about mass shootings. Obviously it’s tragic, but compared to everything else that’s going on, I mean, my God.
I think we need to make it clear that this is a human-rights issue. And if you’re really concerned about abortion, you should be legislating policies that make it less likely. We should have universal health care, and we should have better sex ed, and we should have better access to birth control. Let’s do those things first, and then maybe we’ll come around and talk.
Nyce: Do you ever have any qualms about abortion? Are there any cases where you think it shouldn’t be an option?
Hamlin: Yeah, sure. You do have that every once in a while—like, What am I doing? But then you look at the woman’s face and their story.
We’ve had conversations about people choosing an abortion because of the gender, and it sounds horrific. One person recently was from someplace in Asia. She had a daughter and found out that this pregnancy was a girl and just felt like if she brought home another daughter, she would be ostracized. This was something really awful for her. And even though it’s awful to me to think that having a daughter would be awful, it was for her. I guess I just have to say, who am I to judge?
I’ve certainly had people say, “Oh, I’m just not ready this year. I think I’ll have a baby next year.” And part of me wants to say, “Well, that’s kind of stupid.”
But those are the exceptions. And who knows what’s going on that this year is not okay? I try to take the stance of “Don’t judge” because I can’t possibly understand what’s going on in their life.
Nyce: Obviously, quite a lot of Americans believe that what happens at the clinic is tantamount to murder. Do you think about those people and their views often?
Hamlin: Yeah. I guess I understand why someone might think that. Out of context, if you just talk about ending the life of a fetus, that does sound really horrible. But there is this whole big context involved: What if you don’t? What’s going to happen to the woman? What’s going to happen to her other kids?
There are some people that I think can truly claim to be pro-life in that they’re against capital punishment, and they would be supportive of universal health care. And they would recognize that a baby dying in Africa is as important as a baby dying in the United States. I think they’re actually kind of the exceptions. Most of the people screaming at me that I’m a mass murderer really don’t think about those other things. And they’re not really “pro-life” in any sense that I would call pro-life, in that it’s okay for some people to die; it’s just not okay for fetuses to die.