JACKSON, Miss. — Pink House Defender Derenda Hancock felt numb as she stood outside the entrance to the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, waving her arms to beckon abortion patients to ignore the anti-abortion protesters accosting their cars and pull on into the parking lot.
The night before, on Monday, May 2, a draft of the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization had leaked, indicating the U.S. Supreme Court’s intentions to overturn Roe v. Wade. If the final opinion retains the draft’s essence, it will end most legal abortions in Mississippi and dozens of other states, shutting down the clinic where Hancock has volunteered her time since 2013.
“We just kind of froze. I don’t know how to tell you how I feel. It’s not like a giant surprise. We were prepared for what’s going to happen, but we weren’t expecting it yet,” she told the Mississippi Free Press as she waited for more patients to arrive at the pink building in Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood.
‘There Will Be No Pink House’
On the street nearby, a woman wearing a visor and sunglasses stood next to a basket filled with decorative pink and blue gift packages tied with yellow ribbons containing anti-abortion leaflets that she attempted to hand to patients as they drove up to the clinic. The woman would not share her name, but Hancock and the other clinic defenders call her “Stepper” because of the way she often walks up and down the road in front of the clinic with her FitBit device.
In an interview, “Stepper” expressed joy over the leaked Dobbs draft.
“If the draft of that opinion stands, if those justices will rule with truth, then there will be no Pink House or abortion,” she said, adding that she wants a total abortion ban—even in cases where a pregnant person’s life is in danger, such as in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.
“I have to put it in (God)’s hands,” she said. “He’s the maker of all, so if he wants that woman to live, if he’s not ready to take her home, he’s going to let that happen. We are at his mercy because he’s our creator. I give it to him. We as women don’t have that right because miracles happen every day in those kinds of situations.”
If the draft opinion stands, not only would Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban at the center of the Dobbs case take effect, but so would a 2007 “trigger law” that would “prohibit abortions in the state of Mississippi” at any stage, “except in cases where necessary for the preservation of the mother’s life or where the pregnancy was caused by rape.” Anyone violating that law by providing an abortion would, as in the pre-Roe era, face up to 10 years in prison.
The ruling would likely open the door for a 2019 Mississippi law banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat becomes detectable, or at about six weeks of pregnancy, to take effect. It allows no exceptions for rape or incest.
But Mississippi Sen. Joey Fillingane, a Sumrall Republican and frequent sponsor of anti-abortion legislation, told the Mississippi Free Press Tuesday that he and other lawmakers would seek an even stricter ban afterward that would nix the rape exception prior to six weeks, allowing abortion only to save a pregnant person’s life. The state senator said the ruling would allow states to make abortion laws on a state-by-state basis.
“Even in Mississippi, you’re going to have certain cases, say for the life of the mother, where abortion will be legal,” Fillingane said. “Now, it will be severely restricted of course from where it is now under the Roe v. Wade doctrine, but it will certainly be available in certain aspects even in the most conservative states.”
U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, a Republican from the Gulf Coast, said in a statement Tuesday that “overturning Roe v. Wade would mean returning the decision to the voters and to individual states.”
“Mississippi has done a wonderful job at protecting life, and I trust Mississippians to continue the fight for life should the Supreme Court see fit to return that right to them.”
But Palazzo, like most national Republicans, hope to implement a nationwide ban on abortion in all 50 states if the party regains control of Congress and the presidency. U.S. House Republicans last year introduced the “Life At Conception Act,” which would “implement equal protection for the right to life of each born and preborn human person” under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It enjoys the backing of 149 Republican sponsors, including Mississippi Congressmen Trent Kelly, Michael Guest and Palazzo.
In the U.S. Senate, 18 Republicans including U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi are also sponsoring a similar “Life At Conception Act” bill. Both the Senate and House versions of the bill resemble Mississippi’s 2011 Personhood Amendment, a ballot initiative most voters rejected that would have made abortion illegal from the moment of fertilization.
Because abortion access is already limited in Mississippi, reproductive activists have spent years focusing on educating people about how to safely self-manage their own abortions if they are unable to obtain them at a clinic. Organizers have ramped up those efforts over the past year, though, anticipating that former President Donald Trump’s remaking of the U.S. Supreme Court would lead to the downfall of Roe v. Wade.
Fillingane: Curb Self-Managed Abortion
Laurie Bertram Roberts, the co-founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund and executive director for the Yellowhammer Fund in Alabama, told the Mississippi Free Press that “anyone who has been paying attention for the past 10 years” could have seen what was coming.
“Ever since the Tea Party came into power, they’ve just gone whole hog against abortion rights,” she said. Roberts attributes the anti-abortion crusade to “white people being scared of Black and Brown people becoming the majority and supposedly white people not having enough babies.” Black women are disproportionately represented among those obtaining abortions nationwide, even though white women represent the majority of abortions in terms of raw numbers.
Roberts has long preached the importance of educating people about how to safely self-manage their own abortions. But Sen. Fillingane told the Mississippi Free Press that he hopes to examine the issue and ban “chemical abortions,” referring to the pills pregnant people can order through the mail and take at home to end their own abortions.
“That’s certainly something we would have to look at,” he said. “I think usually what you’ll find is the quicker, easier way of curbing that is by holding the companies responsible. If Mississippi passes a law that says no abortions except to save the life of the mother and then you’ve got ABC pharmaceutical companies sending in these medications that have the one specific design to end a pregnancy, then unless they can prove the doctor involved said she needs this to save her life, I think they become liable for that.
“So you stop it at the source. … If you’re sending those packages into a state like Mississippi after the law changes that says that’s illegal, then you’re furthering a criminal enterprise and, yeah, of course you can be held liable for that.”
Roberts said she doubts whether the state would be successful at stopping people from obtaining abortion medication that way. She pointed out that people would be able to obtain pills internationally.
“Who is going to prosecute them in Norway? The people doing this work internationally are in countries that would never, ever let Joey Fillingane even sneeze in the direction of the people doing this work,” she said. “… They’d have to crack down on the people doing self-managed abortions themselves.”
Anti-abortion lawmakers would have a hard time succeeding at criminalizing individuals for seeking abortions, Roberts said.
“They’ve always said their goal is not to lock up women, so imagine what it’s going to look like when they start locking people up. … How are you confirming someone used mistoprostl or had a miscarriage?”
Mississippi’s two Republican U.S. senators, Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, have both sponsored federal legislation that would ban the dispensing of abortion medication by mail. It has not been successful to date.
‘This Will Be Catastrophic For Women’
After U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed the validity of the leaked opinion yesterday, the Mississippi Republican Party celebrated the news in a statement.
“I am heartened by recent news reports that Roe v. Wade is slated to be overturned. Mississippi has created a culture of life of which we can be proud,” said Mississippi GOP Chairman Frank Bordeaux, whose state boasts the nation’s highest infant mortality rate, highest fetal mortality rate, lowest overall life expectancy rate and highest COVID-19 death rate.
Mississippi Sen. Chris McDaniel told Y’all Politics in an interview yesterday that state lawmakers likely will pass new laws to further restrict abortion after the ruling comes down.
“Mississippians are a very culturally conservative people, socially conservative people, so you can anticipate there’s going to be movement in that direction,” the senator said, adding that states like “Mississippi and Alabama have to look more strongly at what’s next and the idea is to protect liberty and protect life.”
Since the Dobbs draft leaked, national Democrats including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have called on congressional Democrats to pass a federal law codifying the protections of Roe v. Wade into law nationwide. Such an effort is likely to fail, however, in a Senate where Democrats only hold 50 seats and need 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster. During his interview with Y’all Politics, McDaniel laughed off the idea.
“Here Biden is attempting to federalize this issue once again, and it just goes to show the Democrats don’t have any firm understanding or appreciation of the traditional Constitution. To them, it’s all about power and control,” McDaniel said.
In a statement yesterday from the Mississippi Center For Justice, which served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs against Mississippi’s 15-week ban in the Dobbs case, MCJ President Vangela M. Wade warned that “America is poised to turn back the clocks to a time that no young person today will—or should—recognize.”
“For the present, abortion remains legal in Mississippi. But if the majority ultimately overrules Roe, abortion will become illegal in Mississippi and many other states,” she said. “This will be catastrophic for women, particularly poor women, who are disproportionately Black and brown, and all those who will not have the time, resources or ability to travel out of state to places where abortion is still legal.”
Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban at the center of the Dobbs case was part of a plan crafted by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing Christian legal organization that wrote the bill and gave it to Mississippi lawmakers in an effort to trigger a U.S. Supreme Court case. ADF’s leaders explained their plan “to eradicate Roe” several weeks before Mississippi’s Legislature passed the bill in 2018.
‘It’s Look Like We’re About Done Here’
Outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization on Tuesday morning, clinic defenders and escorts mused over the rarity of seeing more reporters than anti-abortion protesters standing in the streets and on the sidewalks. Only two women, the woman they call “Stepper” and Laura Duran, worked to dissuade patients from getting abortions while a camera crew from MSNBC broadcast live nearby.
Abortion remains legal for now and clinic operations continue, but that could end in a moment once the nation’s high court formally publishes its final opinion in the Dobbs case. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch has said she expects the opinion by the end of June.
Derenda Hancock speculated that, once Roe v. Wade falls, “the Pink House Defenders probably aren’t going to exist any more” and anti-abortion activists who regularly gather at the clinic to shout at and wave down patients are “going to go to the safe states and protest there.”
She had hoped for a more narrow ruling, potentially one upholding Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban without immediately banning almost all abortions before that point. It would have at least bought some time.
“That’s at least what I hoped in my mind was going to happen,” Hancock told the Mississippi Free Press. “It could still change, but it’s not looking that way. It’s looking like we’re about done here.”