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Abortion rights advocates in Mississippi strategize for a post-Roe world

NBC News logo NBC News 12/6/2021 Bracey Harris

JACKSON, Miss. — As the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday about reversing a nearly 50-year precedent on abortion rights, a young woman wearing a “Bans off my body” T-shirt walked up to a white poster in a downtown Jackson hotel ballroom.

Several members and supporters of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition had jotted down messages on an array of pink, blue and orange sticky notes — what they would want to say to the justices.

“I remember having to go to Cuba or Sweden for abortion. Not again.”

“Protect Black Women.”

She added the latest in pink ink on a neon green note:

“Understand the power you hold and the real lives this impacts.”

An anti-abortion protester makes his way through an abortion rights rally in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 1, 2021. (Rory Doyle for NBC News) © Provided by NBC News An anti-abortion protester makes his way through an abortion rights rally in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 1, 2021. (Rory Doyle for NBC News)

The racially diverse group gathered around linen-covered tables in the Westin were only a few miles away from the state’s only abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, whose lawyers were before the court in Washington on Wednesday morning. It was clear to many in the ballroom that the ability of patients in Mississippi to obtain abortions — and, indeed, the fate of abortion rights nationwide — hinged on the pending decision.

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Members of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition were not optimistic that the Supreme Court will rule in their favor next year — instead, they were steeling themselves for more restrictions in a state where it is already difficult to get an abortion. 

“We’re not going to go underground,” said Valencia Robinson, the executive director of Mississippi in Action, which advocates for people living with HIV and provides education about sexual health. She and others said they were already working to mobilize supporters who could assist with transportation to the Jackson clinic and help with the financial barriers that often impede abortion access.

Abortion rights advocate Valencia Robinson cheers at a rally in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 1, 2021. (Rory Doyle for NBC News) © Rory Doyle for NBC News Abortion rights advocate Valencia Robinson cheers at a rally in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 1, 2021. (Rory Doyle for NBC News)

A 2018 Mississippi law largely banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy set the stage for this moment. The restrictions, which were struck down by lower courts and never enforced, defy the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, which enshrined abortion rights before fetal viability, or the stage at which a fetus can survive outside the womb. Medical experts say the benchmark is between 23 and 24 weeks, well after the point Mississippi seeks to curtail access. In arguing for the law, Mississippi is asking the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. 

Neighboring Louisiana is one of several states with trigger laws that would widely make abortion illegal if the landmark 1973 ruling falls. Lakeesha Harris, an activist from Louisiana who traveled to Jackson to speak at an abortion rights rally Wednesday, reminded the crowd that the consequences of what started as a state-level restriction in Mississippi do not exist in a silo.

“It affects Louisiana,” she said. “It affects Texas. Oppression does not know the boundary of state lines.”

Wednesday’s oral arguments made it clear that the layered barriers — both legislative and cultural — that had left Mississippi as the only state in the Deep South with a sole abortion clinic were not contained within the state’s borders.  

“While the rest of the country is getting ready to feel what it’s like to be Mississippi … we’ve still been experiencing a post-Roe climate,” said Michelle Colon, a member of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition who founded SHERo Mississippi, a reproductive justice collective led by Black women. “If you only have one clinic, that’s a huge obstacle to access.”

The night before members of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition gathered to listen to the Supreme Court arguments that could dismantle Roe v. Wade, abortion rights opponents stood in front of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization to pray for that very outcome.

“This case tomorrow could make Mississippi the first domino to fall,” said Steve Karlen, the campaign director of 40 Days for Life, a nonprofit organization that spearheads annual vigils against abortion. 

A speaker shared his dream that the “Pink House,” as the facility is known for its pastel hue, would become a church. 

An abortion rights advocate holds a sign in front of an anti-abortion protester at a rally in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 1, 2021. (Rory Doyle for NBC News) © Rory Doyle for NBC News An abortion rights advocate holds a sign in front of an anti-abortion protester at a rally in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 1, 2021. (Rory Doyle for NBC News)

Largely unspoken were the challenges that often shape decisions to end unwanted pregnancies in a state that has historically had the highest poverty rate in the country.

Laura Knight, the president of Pro-Life Mississippi, said she does not expect the state to bolster the social safety net for women left with limited options if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Her office has a pantry for those seeking assistance. She sees supporting women who continue their pregnancies as more of a responsibility for faith communities, rather than the government. The Republican-led state rejected a program to expand Medicaid to people who are below the federal poverty level, and it has one of the lowest insured rates in the country. 

“In a post-Roe Mississippi, I foresee the churches rising up and being more visible,” Knight said.

It is just the latest attempt in Mississippi to restrict abortion. Less than a decade has passed since the Jackson clinic fought off a 2012 law that would have resulted in its closure. And the introduction of new legislation to curtail access never stopped.  

Abortion rights activists in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 1, 2021. (Rory Doyle for NBC News) © Rory Doyle for NBC News Abortion rights activists in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 1, 2021. (Rory Doyle for NBC News)

In 2019, several Mississippi-based organizations formed an alliance that became the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition, which includes Planned Parenthood Southeast and nonprofit organizations focused on economic justice, pay disparities and reproductive health.  

In addition to advocacy, volunteers recruit allies to drive patients to appointments, take them meals after their procedures and open up homes and apartments to those who need housing after having traveled hundreds of miles for care. Coalition members are also looking at educating women about self-managed abortions, which involve taking prescription medications either at a clinic or at home. 

“In places like Mississippi and just across the South for so long, it has been this feeling that we just barely get the protections that Roe v. Wade promises,” said Tyler Harden, the Mississippi state director for Planned Parenthood Southeast.

Tyler Harden, the Mississippi state Director at Planned Parenthood Southeast. (Rory Doyle for NBC News) © Rory Doyle for NBC News Tyler Harden, the Mississippi state Director at Planned Parenthood Southeast. (Rory Doyle for NBC News)

The gaps became apparent when she learned that she was pregnant in 2018. It was the same year that then-Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Gestational Age Act at the center of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Harden obtained an abortion, but she found the logistics overwhelming.

“I remember being very confused about laws and regulations here in Mississippi around abortion access … and how to even access abortion, how to pay for it,” she said. “It just motivated me to make sure that other folks don’t feel the same confusion and shame.”

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