The parents of a teenage Mississippi rape victim had to travel more than 500 miles to help their daughter obtain an abortion in Illinois, WAPT’s Megan West reported. The family told the local Jackson anchor that they learned their daughter was pregnant three days beyond Mississippi’s legal limit of six weeks.
The parents, whom WAPT referred to only as “Jane Doe” and “John Doe,” said they did not know that abortion was illegal in Mississippi or that the state’s only abortion clinic had closed until they sought help for their daughter.
“We didn’t (know) until after we was trying to find places that would (provide abortion care), and they told us that if we would’ve known about it at least three days ahead that we could’ve got an abortion in Mississippi,” John Doe said in blurred video footage WAPT aired in a Nov. 22 broadcast. The station reported that authorities have charged multiple individuals for sexual battery for the teen girl’s rape.
‘Every Life Is Valuable’
In June’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Mississippi’s 2018 law banning abortions after 15 weeks and reversed Roe v. Wade, allowing states to restrict abortion rights at any stage of pregnancy.
On that day, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, who has overseen passage of multiple abortion bans in his chamber, made his position on child-rape cases clear.
“What about the case of a 12-year-old girl who was molested by her father or uncle?” Associated Press reporter Emily Wagster Pettus asked the Republican speaker on the Mississippi House floor on June 24, 2022.
Gunn told her that he opposes abortion in even such cases. “I believe life begins at conception,” the Clinton Republican said. “Every life is valuable. And those are my personal beliefs.” The remark drew international headlines.
State law forced Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, to close its doors on July 6, 2022, and the owners opened a new location in New Mexico where abortion remains legal. Under Mississippi’s Roe v. Wade trigger law, people who became pregnant as a result of rape still technically had the right to get an abortion—if they reported their rape to law enforcement and found a doctor willing to provide it.
‘It Was The Ugliest Feeling’
Three months after the clinic closed its doors for the last time, a Mississippi federal judge who had previously blocked a six-week abortion ban allowed it to take effect, citing the Dobbs decision. That law bans nearly all abortions, including in cases of rape, after fetal cardiac activity becomes detectable That typically happens in the sixth week of pregnancy—before many people know they are pregnant.
WAPT reported last week that, after learning about their daughter’s pregnancy and the state’s strict abortion laws, the Doe family reached out to the OB-GYN who had delivered their daughter.
“I called my OB, the one who delivered my babies,” Jane Doe told WAPT, her voice distorted in the footage. “And I explained my situation to him. It was the ugliest feeling having to explain to the doctor that delivered your child that she was raped, and then him having to tell you he can’t do anything to help.”
Doe told WAPT that the family decided against traveling to The Pink House West, the New Mexico clinic owned by JWHO’s former owner, because of its distance. The family ultimately traveled more than seven hours to the closest abortion clinic they could find: a Planned Parenthood in Fairview Heights, Illinois.
The rape victim’s mother said the funds were the “hardest part to come up with.” Aside from the cost of food and gas, the abortion itself cost $1,595, and the family spent almost $500 on hotel costs.
‘The Exemption Essentially Doesn’t Exist’
Laurie Bertram Roberts runs the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, which is one of several nonprofit organizations that provides funding for people who need help obtaining abortions in Mississippi. She said that while her organization did not receive a request for help from the family WAPT interviewed, “there’s not been a month since we’ve been around that we don’t hear from rape victims.” She co-founded MRFF in 2013.
Even before the Dobbs ruling, abortion-rights activists have long warned that Mississippi’s narrow exceptions for its abortion bans were largely toothless.
“The exemption essentially doesn’t exist because, for one, who is performing abortions in Mississippi? Nobody, right? The exemption system is essentially set up not to work. If you look at the hoops people have to go through, I think of it the way (Temporary Assistance For Needy Families) applications are set up,” Roberts said, referring to a cash-assistance program that annually rejects more than 90% of poor applicants in Mississippi. “It’s like, yeah, you can apply, but you’re probably not going to get anything.”
Roberts said her organization sometimes hears from nurses and medical examiners who contact them because their hospitals are not offering rape victims Plan B, which can prevent pregnancy if taken within the first 72 hours. “So it’s not just access to abortion that’s hard to get in the state, it’s hard to get proactive medication to keep people from getting pregnant.”
The way Mississippi’s abortions laws are written puts doctors at risk for criminal investigations even if they perform an abortion that they believe is allowed under the law’s exceptions, Roberts said.
“And if somewhere down the line a court says her reason wasn’t valid enough, then that doctor performed an illegal abortion. The law is so vague and, it’s left in such a gray area that doctors aren’t going to touch anyone unless they’re almost dead,” she said. “And even then, it’s a question of, ‘How close to death are you?’ Because that’s how scared doctors are. This is feedback I’ve gotten from doctors in Arkansas, in Louisiana, in Alabama and all across the country.”
‘There Will Be Women Who Will Die’
Dr. Cheryl Hamlin, who provided abortions at the Pink House in Jackson before it closed in July, told the Mississippi Free Press at the time that she also believes the law’s exemption for “cases where necessary for the preservation of the mother’s life” does not guarantee that pregnant people will be able to obtain life-saving abortions.
“What does not look like a life-threatening condition today could rapidly devolve into one if the local OB-GYNs are now afraid to do the right thing until it really becomes dire,” she said. “… There will be women who will die because their OB-GYN or family doctor is afraid to treat them because they’re afraid of the implications. ‘Well, it’s not fully life-threatening, yet. It’s maybe only 50% life-threatening, or maybe 75%. Is that enough? Does it have to be 100%?’ So yes, it will happen.”
Roberts said she was not surprised that the Does did not know about the Dobbs ruling or that abortion is now almost completely illegal in Mississippi.
“We run across two different things: We run across people who don’t know that anything happened and think abortion is still fine and who don’t even know that Roe was attacked and are completely oblivious that anything happened. And we run across people who thought the clinic closed 10 years ago or five years ago because the clinic has been constantly under attack and there’s always been news stories about how the clinic is going to be closed down,” she said. “For years our voicemail would say abortion is still legal in Mississippi because people would call us all the time and think abortion wasn’t legal here.
“So I’m not surprised people aren’t engaged enough to know what’s going on because, honestly, most people are just living their lives, minding their own business. They’re not that engaged with what’s going on politically. For a lot of folks, they don’t realize the situation until they’re in the situation.”
‘Forced Birth Is Going To Be On The Rise’
Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney told lawmakers in September 2022 that the state will likely see at least 5,000 additional births per year as a result of the Dobbs decision. In a public hearing, Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services Commissioner Andrea Sanders told state senators that her agency is not prepared for the influx.
Roberts said her organization foresaw that outcome.
“At MRFF we know forced birth is going to be on the rise so we’re bulking up our family crisis and family support services,” she said, noting that it is already “twice as much of the need” compared to abortion. “Numerically, about 5,000 people a year had abortions in Mississippi. There are about 36,000 births in Mississippi a year that are on Medicaid. The majority of births in Mississippi are on Medicaid, so the amount of people that are low income and need support having a child is far greater than the number who need our assistance seeking abortion.”
For years, MRFF has worked in the Jackson community offering food banks and providing families in need with necessary items like diapers.
“There are people in the community who have never had any interactions besides getting diapers, formula and water. They’ve never talked to us about abortion,” Roberts said. “Because it’s not like with every case of water we give out we say, ‘Here’s a coupon for abortion.’ We’re not fundamentalists. We don’t give out propaganda for every interaction we have with people. We’re not out here to win converts. We just want people to have their basic needs.”
During its 2022 session, the Legislature approved millions of dollars in tax breaks for donations to “crisis pregnancy centers” that say they want to help parents and families who decide to go through with giving birth and raising a child. But those public funds are only available for donations to organizations affiliated with Choose Life Mississippi, an anti-abortion organization that has the support of many of the state’s top Republican officials.
MRFF does not benefit from the law, even for its non-abortion work. “We have to hustle for every penny we get,” Roberts said.
Anti-Abortion Efforts Continue
In 2018, the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based evangelical Christian legal organization, announced that it had drawn up model legislation designed to trigger a U.S. Supreme Court case and overturn Roe v. Wade with help from then-President Donald Trump’s judicial appointees. That model legislation included a 15-week abortion ban that they passed on to Mississippi lawmakers. Within weeks, the state had approved the ban, starting the case that would result in the Dobbs ruling four years later.
As Trump continued remaking the nation’s high court, the State of Mississippi passed the even stricter six-week ban in 2019. One of the key lawmakers behind that effort, Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, told the the Jackson Free Press that with Trump’s appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, “a lot of people thought, finally, we have five conservative justices and so now would be a good time to start testing the limits of Roe”—a remark the three liberal justices would later cite in their June 2022 dissent against the Dobbs decision.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in late 2020 gave Republicans the chance to expand their U.S. Supreme Court majority to six seats as they rushed to confirm Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett just days before he lost the 2020 election.
Despite banning practically all legal abortions in Mississippi, anti-abortion organizations continue to push for more restrictions. Following their successful plan to overturn Roe v. Wade, the ADF filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this month in an attempt to roll back the FDA’s approval of mifepristone and misoprostol, the pills used for non-surgical, medication abortions.