'Much work yet to be done': Mississippi demonstrators plan to fight for abortion access

·7 min read

Derenda Hancock donned a multi-colored vest and stood with colleagues to help patients drive into the Jackson Women's Health Organization, Mississippi's one remaining abortion provider.

She looked out at the road next to the clinic, commonly referred to as the Pink House, where on any given morning, at least half a dozen pro-life demonstrators carry signs and try to approach cars entering or leaving the parking lot.

On Tuesday morning, there were three people, which is less than Hancock and others expected after a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion indicating the court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade was made public Monday night by Politico. The landmark 1973 decision establishes the constitutional right to abortion.

"I'm going to hold on to hope things could still change," said Hancock, the co-organizer of the Pink House Defenders, a group of volunteers who help escort people safely into the clinic. "It's not set in stone."

In a file photo, veteran clinic escort Derenda Hancock, right, confers with younger defenders Asia Brown, left, and Ellie Rome, center, as they wait outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic parking lot for patients, Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Jackson, Miss. The clinic is Mississippi's only state-licensed abortion facility. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the dispute over a Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The issue is the first test of limits on abortion access to go before the conservative majority high court. Their decision could mean more restrictions and focuses on the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, which established a woman's right to an abortion. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
In a file photo, veteran clinic escort Derenda Hancock, right, confers with younger defenders Asia Brown, left, and Ellie Rome, center, as they wait outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic parking lot for patients, Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Jackson, Miss. The clinic is Mississippi's only state-licensed abortion facility. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the dispute over a Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The issue is the first test of limits on abortion access to go before the conservative majority high court. Their decision could mean more restrictions and focuses on the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, which established a woman's right to an abortion. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The draft Supreme Court decision not only indicates that the Supreme Court may decide to overturn Roe v. Wade but also its companion decision Casey vs. Planned Parenthood. The latter reaffirmed the constitutional right to abortion care.

Report: U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade in Mississippi abortion case

More: Report: Mississippi is one of 25 states where reproductive health and rights hang in peril

In the draft decision, Associate Justice Samuel Alito stated, "Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

The Supreme Court verified the authenticity of the leak on Tuesday but said it did not represent a final decision by the court, according to USA Today.

The decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization centers on a 2018 Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation — except in cases where there is a medical emergency or fetal abnormality.

The law was never enacted and has been tied up in court. However, it carries national implications and as was evident from the leaked decision could determine the fate of abortion access across the U.S.

Advocates on either side of the issue responded on Tuesday to the leaked SCOTUS decision.

"We are hopeful for an abortion-free future," said Louisiana Right to Life spokesperson Sarah Zagorski in a written statement. "We are ready to help women facing unplanned pregnancies through our comprehensive network of pregnancy centers, adoption agencies, and public and private social services."

Zagorski said the organization was "astounded by Justice Alito's statement" that Roe vs. Wade and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey were egregiously wrong.

"We hope that it will be the final decision of the High Court," she said.

Omarr Peters, southern coordinator for Students for Life of America, visited the Jackson clinic Tuesday morning and spoke with the other demonstrators. The draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, while not final, is a landmark.

"We are optimistic," he said about pro-life supporters. "We believe the justices will stand strong and we're praying for them."

Peters, a Mississippi College graduate, works with high school and college-age students in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and helps them mobilize against abortion.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which argued against Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in the Supreme Court, said without an official decision from the court, abortion remains legal in the county.

"What we do know is that if SCOTUS overturns Roe it will be an unjustified, unprecedented stripping away of a guaranteed right that has been in place for nearly five decades," said CEO Nancy Northrup in a Monday evening statement. "It would represent the most damaging set back the rights of women in the history of our country."

What does abortion access look like?: 'Even if we win, we lose': Abortion access in Miss. already limited without Roe challenge

Abortion care already restricted in the South

In the South, abortion care has become more difficult to access as state lawmakers have successfully passed dozens of restrictions limiting access. These include requirements such as mandatory waiting periods before an abortion procedure, limitations on when abortions are still legal and additional licensing requirements on abortion providers.

As a result, the number of abortion providers across the region has dwindled.

It's important to note that abortion is still legal in the United States and this decision is not final. However, access to abortion in much of the South is very limited already as state lawmakers have successfully passed a web of restrictions making the procedure increasingly difficult to access, particularly for low-income people of color.

These restrictions include waiting periods before getting an abortion, bans on abortion after a certain number of weeks and licensing requirements on abortion clinics and providers.

In an analysis of state laws, the Guttmacher Institute, reproductive health research, and policy organization found that 26 states already have laws on the books that would result in a ban on abortion if Roe vs. Wade is overturned.

Related: Mississippi politicians react to leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft abortion decision

More: New Mississippi law creates tax credit for donations to crisis pregnancy centers

Louisiana passed a 2006 law prohibiting abortion except in cases of medical emergencies affecting the life of the mother. The law has never been enacted but would become effective should SCOTUS reverse the Roe vs. Wade decision.

Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana all have passed constitutional amendments that bar protection to the right to an abortion. Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi all have passed bans on abortion after six weeks, according to the analysis.

Even before the Supreme Court decided to take on Mississippi's 15-week ban, healthcare providers and reproductive rights advocates have been preparing for the possibility that the high court would decide to overturn Roe. It has been especially challenging circumstances in states where abortion clinics are limited and overburdened by demand from people traveling from out of state for abortion services.

In the past year, clinics across the region and in states bordering Texas have seen an overflow of patients leaving the state to access abortion services since a law outlawing abortion after six weeks went into effect last September. While state officials are technically not able to enforce SB 8, it allows anyone to file a lawsuit against an organization or individuals they believed have helped a person obtain an abortion in Texas.

Between September and December 2021, abortion providers in states neighboring Texas saw more than 5,500 people, according to research from the Texas Evaluation Project at the University of Texas at Austin. During the same four-month period in 2019, these clinics served only 500 Texans.

Robin Marty, the operations director for the West Alabama Women's Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said in March that the clinic was seeing close to 300 patients a month, up from a normal average of about 200. About one-third of their patients travel from out of state.

This means patients are shouldering the financial burden of having to travel long distances to access care, Marty said.

“When those patients come out they start to flood the states next to them. People will start to go out to the next states after that. All of a sudden you’re in Alabama where you may be traveling 10 to 12 hours by car in order to access a safe legal abortion,” she said.

Hancock, the organizer from Jackson's Pink House Defenders, said if Roe v. Wade is overturned Mississippi residents will have to travel hundreds of miles out of state to seek an abortion.

Georgia and North Carolina could be the closest options in the South. If those states put abortion bans in place, Hancock said Illinois or New Mexico may be the next closest states where people would have to go.

The Pink House Fund collects donations to help patients pay for abortion care at the Jackson clinic. Its staff said it will continue helping people access care "until we are legally forced to stop."

"We know there will be no final reprieve at the end of this case. We are exploring all options for continuing to provide care at this time," staff members said in a Tuesday statement. "There is much work yet to be done."

Maria Clark is a general assignment reporter with The American South. Email her at mclark@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Clarion Ledger reporter Mina Corpuz can be reached by email at mcorpuz@gannett.com. You can follow her on Twitter @mlcorpuz

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Court's expected end to Roe v. Wade centered on Mississippi law