Mississippi’s last abortion clinic faces tense final days

Clinic escorts square off against evangelical Christians following US Supreme Court decision that overturned women's right to abortion

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A large, bearded man with wraparound sunglasses stands at the entrance of the Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, Mississippi’s last abortion clinic, and screams at a woman as she is driven into the clinic's car park.

“This is murder,” he yells. “You’re going to perish without the mercy of God.”

He has draped a towel over his head to protect himself from the heat and humidity that envelop Jackson at this time of year.

As he shouts Biblical scriptures, a woman wearing a rainbow-coloured jacket that reads “clinic escort” steps in front of him and holds a large mirror up to his face. On it, she has written: “You, yelling at women.”

“Do you like how you look, Allan?” she asks. The two know each other by name.

Following the US Supreme Court ruling last week that overturned Roe v Wade, a 1973 law that legalised abortion, Mississippi and other conservative states have moved quickly to enact bans on the procedure.

Following the ruling, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch certified the state’s “trigger law”, starting a 10-day countdown to a ban on abortions in almost all cases.

Similar situations have transpired across the country, with at least six states banning or severely restricting abortions and several others in the process of doing so.

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In all, 26 of the 50 US states are looking to ban abortion in some if not all forms.

The Jackson Women’s Health Organisation is days from being permanently shut. Known as the “Pink House” for its rose-coloured facade, it has championed women’s right to abortions in the conservative state for years.

The clinic plans to continue working until the last moment. In its apparent final days, a motley crew of pro-choice volunteers face off against pro-life demonstrators — most of them white men — who are there to try to deter women from having an abortion.

Three large security guards hover nearby, ready to intervene if the situation becomes physical.

The Jackson Women’s Health Organisation was at the heart of the legal case that went before the Supreme Court and ultimately led to the overturning of Roe V Wade.

The organisation has filed a lawsuit to try to stop the trigger ban from going into effect. In the lawsuit, the clinic argues that a women's right to abortion is protected under the state’s constitution.

“Because the Mississippi constitution provides a right to abortion, the state's trigger ban, which is scheduled to go into effect on July 7 and would outlaw nearly all abortions, cannot be enforced,” said Rob McDuff, a lawyer with the Mississippi Centre for Justice, which has represented the clinic for more than two decades.

Mr McDuff hopes the court rules on the suit before the July 7 deadline.

Regardless of the outcome, abortion activists in Jackson are defiant.

“I'm not going to abide by it,” says Michelle Colon, an abortion rights activist.

“It's wrong, it's racist and sexist and I'm going to continue doing what I've been doing and that is helping pregnant Mississippians access safe abortion.”

Ms Colon told The National that the ban would disproportionately affect poor black women. She vowed to help pay for vulnerable women to have abortions in states where the procedure remains legal and said she would even drive them there herself.

The only problem: the nearest clinic will now be in Granite City, Illinois — an 800-kilometre drive from Jackson.

While the Jackson facility remains open, pro-choice and pro-life activists will continue to clash, each adamant they are on the right side of history.

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“I'm thankful there's some abortion mills closed, but I'm not excited,” says Coleman Boyd, an emergency room doctor and staunch anti-abortion activist who regularly protests outside the clinic.

“The fact that we waited [50 years] for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe is pathetic.”

Mr Coleman peers through the black netting that surrounds the clinic and calls out to all those nearby.

“Ladies, today is the day of salvation. Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden [your] heart,” he says as gospel music blares.

Outside the clinic, a cacophony of competing music and jeers fills the air.

The bespectacled preacher and physician says he does not consider himself either Democrat or Republican and that he usually votes along Christian conservative lines, similar to many others outside the clinic.

“I typically vote conservative, I consider myself first, Christian and second, American,” says Doug Hiser, who sits quietly praying outside the clinic.

Mr Hiser told The National that he had been protesting at the clinic for 18 years and that the relationship between the opposing sides has grown increasingly tense over the years.

“It was just an open environment, there wasn't yelling and screaming, you could reach through the fence and hold somebody's hand and pray for him if they wanted prayer,” he says.

That is no longer the case, as the two sides can now spend hours bickering with each other.

“I've lived on this earth nearly 84 years,” says Jean Comley, a clinic escort. “And I have never seen a meanness of man like I see here.”

Ms Comley fears the Supreme Court ruling will rob her granddaughter of a right that has been in place a half century.

“We have regressed, I'm afraid, in respect and concern for women's rights,” she says.

Derenda Hancock, who is the co-organiser of the Pink Defenders, the group of volunteer clinic escorts, says the anti-abortion protesters are “Christian terrorists” and that they make an already difficult experience that much harder.

“As the patients go, it's incredibly intimidating,” Ms Hancock says. “A lot of them are frightened.”

Ms Hancock says the escorts will remain outside the clinic until it closes.

She adds that the heavily conservative Supreme Court was unlikely to stop at the abortion ruling and would next take action against access to contraception and gay rights.

Updated: June 30, 2022, 3:45 AM
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