JACKSON, Mississippi – Even as pro-choice activists protested at “Ground Zero” for the nation’s fight over abortion, they were already shaping strategies for a post-Roe v. Wade world.
National pro-choice organizers at NARAL had wanted Mississippians to demonstrate in Washington, D.C., outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on Dec. 1 as the nation’s high court heard arguments in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The case challenges the state’s law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
But Michelle Colon, co-founder/executive director of SHERo Mississippi, and her sister organizers refused to travel. “We felt this was the right place to be. Women here will be most affected.”
As the Supreme Court questioned lawyers, the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition –SHERo, Planned Parenthood South East, Black Women’s Roundtable and Mississippi in Action – gathered in Jackson for the 13-hour Day of Action for “abortion freedom fighters”. In Washington, most demonstrators were anti-abortion. But in Jackson, “once again, we outnumber the ‘antis’,” said Colon.
The questions and responses from many of the justices left analysts concluding the Supreme Court will uphold Mississippi’s law, leaving the pro-choice activists facing a post-Roe world. Colon said the Day of Action was a party to raise their morale.
What will that post-Roe world look like? Some young women are already at work shaping it. Caroline Weinberg is founder/executive director of PlanAHealth, a nonprofit that distributes free birth control to poor women in the Mississippi Delta. Weinberg decided Dec. 1 was “the perfect day” to write a fundraising letter.
ACLU policy counsel Vara Lyons said her organization will focus on educating women about their options. From the Mississippi Gulf Coast, those in need of abortions can drive three hours to Pensacola, Florida, or farther to Tallahassee. Lyons said she was reading The Family Roe, a new nonfiction account of Norma McCorvey and her family – three generations of poor young women with no education who could not get abortions in Texas.
Tyler Harden, Mississippi state director for Planned Parenthood South East, is working on a fund to help women who must travel for abortions. She predicted a second “Great Migration” from Mississippi: Some states, including Oregon and Illinois, already provide funds for women from other states who are seeking abortions.
Every year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly a million American women have abortions. About half are married. Pro-choice supporters argue that limits on abortion, like Mississippi’s law, particularly burden teens, women in rural areas, low-income women – all likely to be women of color, like the Jackson organizers.
The Mississippi Day of Action had begun with an invitation-only breakfast for pro-choice activists from Mississippi, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, the District of Columbia and Georgia. Between coffee refills, women and a few men listened to members of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus outside the Supreme Court, and then to the justices debating Mississippi’s law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, representing Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, asked the Supreme Court to uphold the 2018 state law. Since 1973, the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land, guaranteeing abortion up to the time of fetal viability, or 24 weeks – later if the mother’s health is at risk. If today’s Supreme Court’s conservative majority upholds Mississippi’s abortion law, Roe v. Wade could be replaced by states setting their own limits, as Mississippi has, or banning abortion completely, as they did before the Roe decision.
Mississippi’s only remaining abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, is represented by lawyers from the Center for Reproductive Rights. [Recently], U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar addressed the Supreme Court along with the center’s lawyer, signalling that this case is important to the Biden administration. Prelogar pointed out that contraceptives fail, and that half of women seeking abortions had been on birth control.
The justices could not hear activists talking back to them from the Jackson breakfast. When Chief Justice John G. Roberts wondered why 15 weeks to obtain an abortion was “inappropriate,” one woman cried, “You gotta get the money up!” In the background, a young mother from Harlingen, Texas, a member of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, nursed her 4-month-old son.
At noon, the Day of Action continued with an Abortion Freedom Fighters Rally in Smith Park, across from the Governor’s Mansion. The following day, Gov. Tate Reeves stated that freedom of choice applied to being vaccinated against COVID-19, but not to having an abortion. At the rally, a handful of anti-abortion protesters had less measured responses, some of them waving Bibles and others images of bloody fetuses. When Colon called for a brief silence to honor the doctors and abortion clinic staffers killed by their opponents, the protesters shouted, “You need Jesus!” and “No peace for the wicked, sayeth my God!”
Colon served as emcee in front of a copy of a SHERo Mississippi billboard of women of color calling on the Supreme Court to support the right to an abortion. Colon said the billboard had been unveiled in Starkville during the Egg Bowl. This month, these billboards will appear in Batesville, Meridian, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Indianola and elsewhere in the Delta.
Valeria Robinson, executive director of Mississippi in Action, tied lack of access to abortion to violence against women. Hanging out in a neighborhood barber shop, she has heard men say they will kill their partners if they are pregnant by another man.
Meanwhile, at the Pink House, the local name for Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a lone 71-year-old woman had been left by the men at the rally to try to talk new arrivals out of an abortion. “I am convinced abortion harms women,” she explained. Inside, the harried receptionist, asked about her day, replied, “As you can see, we’re busy.” Six women were waiting, and a seventh joined them. Only one woman was White.
The Day of Action closed with a storytelling session, where women who had had abortions described their experiences in public before a respectful and sympathetic audience, refueled by dinner and drinks. Lorena Quiroz-Lewis, executive director of the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, told a story that illustrated the burden on a woman of color who needed an abortion. At 16, this immigrant rape victim spoke no English; since she was indigenous, Spanish was her second language. She was unable to find out about her options until it was too late for her to have an abortion in Mississippi.
With the Supreme Court expected to uphold Mississippi’s law, abortion ban laws in other states, like Texas’ even more restrictive six-week ban, could be constitutional.
That also means that pro-choice activists are facing a post-Roe world.
From Texas, 15-year-old Ximena Ortiz and her 10-year-old brother David said they were proud to come to Jackson to support their mother. “It’s good to be part of something bigger, something helpful to the nation,” said Ximena. Her first name means, “One who hears.”
David added, “My friends have been texting me all day long. They want photos, videos. They’re fighters, too.”
Tanya Britton, a long-time anti-abortion activist in Jackson, declares herself “ecstatic” that a case from Mississippi might prompt the Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade. “There’s no way that an entire country will continue to sanction the wholesale slaughter of innocents. Mississippi is always last in everything, but everything rolls around. I’m very pleasantly surprised.”
Ann Marie Cunningham is MCIR’s Reporter in Residence. She holds a 2021 grant from the Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund at the Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.