The Fight to Keep Open Mississippi’s Last Abortion Clinic

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A longer version of this story — nominated for a 2014 Emmy for News & Documentary — is available for purchase at The Atavist. We’ve reprinted this excerpt — originally posted at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project in January 2013 — following last week’s news that the state’s only abortion clinic will remain open, for now. A law that would have closed it was ruled unconstitutional by a federal Appeals Court.

It was the week before Thanksgiving and Dr. Willie Parker was making small talk with a group of patients at an abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi. “What are your plans for the holidays? What’s your mother cooking?” They laughed as they discussed turkey and dressing. After a bit more chatter, Parker got serious. “I hope this will get done what you want to get done,” he said as an assistant went around the room, dispensing a pill per girl along with small plastic cup of water.

Some of the half-a-dozen young women in the room were awkward, others assured. They were skinny, overweight; some were still in braces. Some were in high school and had mothers waiting for them in the next room. Some had children at home.

“If you feel nauseated, eat some Jolly Ranchers,” Parker continued. “Which flavor do you like?” Parker was usually Latinate in his speech but he was going “colloquial” today, as he put it. Like most of his patients, he is black and from the South. And as he is in his 50s, he also reminds some of them of their fathers and uncles — or the way they wished their fathers and uncles were in moments of crisis. All the girls in this session were receiving the “abortion pill,” or mifepristone. Within the next few hours, they would start to cramp and their pregnancies would be terminated.

Parker is an abortion provider. But he is also the plaintiff in a case that may have extreme political consequences. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, and state legislators are trying to shut it down: The next court date is at the end of January. Republican Governor Phil Bryant has called it “the first step in a movement, I believe, to do what we campaigned on: to say that we’re going to try to end abortion in Mississippi.”

If the effort is successful, it will be an “enormous victory” for the pro-life movement, said Carole Joffe, a long-time scholar of abortion rights at the University of California at Davis. “There’s a competition within the Red States to see if they can be the first to close all the clinics.”

If the Jackson clinic is closed, the 2,000 women who go there for abortions each year will need to travel out-of-state. That will mean paying for bus fare or gas, as well as covering childcare and the loss of wages.
It’s been 40 years since Roe vs. Wade made abortion a constitutional right across the land. But if states can’t make the practice illegal, they can pass stringent new laws. In Virginia, for instance, the state legislature recently regulated the location of bathrooms and the sizes of the hallways within clinics, requirements that have been deemed impossible to follow.

In April 2012, the Mississippi legislature passed House Bill 1390, which requires abortion providers to gain hospital admitting privileges. Since then, Parker and the other physicians at the clinic have been rejected by the area’s seven local hospitals. Five rejected them outright because they were opposed to being associated with an abortion provider, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. One wrote that giving doctors admitting priveleges “would lead to both an internal and external disruption of the Hospital’s function and business within this community.”

If the Jackson clinic is closed, the 2,000 women who go there for abortions each year will need to travel out-of-state. That will mean paying for bus fare or gas, as well as covering childcare and the loss of wages. There will also be hotel fees: many nearby states require a 72-hour waiting period between a state-mandated counseling session and an abortion. And the procedure itself can cost $450 or even more. (Several of the women in the waiting room of the Jackson clinic said they had received financial assistance from the National Abortion Federation.) All of this may make abortions prohibitively expensive for many Mississippi women, who are among the poorest in the union. According to the latest census, Mississippi had a poverty rate of 22.6 in 2011. The clinic’s clientele fall disproportionately into this poorest sector.

The bill’s supporters insist they aren’t trying to make things difficult for low-income women; they’re simply trying to protect them. Outside the clinic, protestors, seated on foldable lawn chairs, are eager to tell visitors about the medical risks of abortion, handing out leaflets and models of fetuses. One woman, 64-year-old Ester Mann, has been picketing the clinic for many years and has been arrested twice. She says the clients who come there are “disdaining God” and the “precious gift” of pregnancies. She is eagerly awaiting the court decision later this month as she sits outside the clinic, day after day, praying for it to close.

Inside the pink, yellow and red waiting room, business continues as usual. There’s voluble chatter among the staff and clients as BET plays on the television, an old Jamie Foxx rerun with canned laughter.

He realized that “a safe and early abortion was the Christian thing.” He reenvisioned Christianity as “a love ethic, especially around the doctrine of compassion.” Part of that compassion, he believed, was to help young women who had nowhere else to turn.
When Parker isn’t talking or performing procedures, he sits serenely in his office. On one break, he eats what he calls a “cardiac” breakfast of bacon and eggs, loading up for the dozens of operations ahead of him.

Though Parker has long been a doctor and a gynecologist, he came to his current profession in mid-life. After attending a specialized program at University of Michigan, he began performing abortions roughly 10 years ago, working at clinics in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. The decision was not an easy one. “I grew up in the black church and I was conflicted about what it would mean to help women with their unplanned pregnancies,” says Parker, who was raised without much money by a single mother in Birmingham, Alabama.

In this April 15, 2013 photograph, Dr. Willie J. Parker, an OB-GYN who travels from Chicago about once a month to work at the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic, speaks about his medical background and his desire to provide the women of Mississippi with health care at the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss. A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked Mississippi from revoking the license of the state's only abortion clinic, saying the state cannot close the clinic while it still has a federal lawsuit pending to challenge the 2012 law. A trial date has not been set. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Dr. Willie J. Parker in April 2013. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

But then he had an epiphany. He realized that “a safe and early abortion was the Christian thing.” He reenvisioned Christianity as “a love ethic, especially around the doctrine of compassion.” Part of that compassion, he believed, was to help young women who had nowhere else to turn. There was a personal dimension for him as well: His own grandmother died in childbirth.

Last May, Parker began traveling down to the Jackson clinic from DC and Philadelphia a few days a month. (He also spends a few days a month at a clinic in Montgomery, Alabama.) He had read about the impending Mississippi law and had a strong sense that he was needed. Once he arrived, he was pleasantly surprised to find the clinic located in an accepting, “avant-garde” neighborhood with vintage stores and coffee shops. But he was disturbed by the zeal of protesters. One took a picture of him at a local sub shop, and another shouted out his name, including his middle name. He is unmarried and has no children, and his girlfriend supports his work, but he says she also “fears harm will befall me.”

“I don’t want to falsely reassure myself,” Parker says, naming two abortion providers who were killed by pro-life extremists. “[Bernard] Slepian died in the kitchen, [George] Tiller at church.”

Along with his own safety concerns, Parker must grapple with the stigma of abortion in other ways. His patients frequently ask him whether they will be punished for what they’re about to do. “They fear divine will and divine intervention. They’ll ask, ‘Do you think God will kill me for killing my baby?’”

It’s a difficult practice. As Parker explains, an abortion is something most women would rather forget, and the poorer clients at the clinics Parker works at are usually “putting out lots of other fires” in their lives. The only patient who has kept up a warm friendship with him is a woman who learned of rare genetic abnormalities late in her first and second pregnancies. Parker performed the procedures after she and her husband chose to abort. Just this summer, the woman had a healthy baby and invited him to her newborn’s bris.

“Which women deserve or don’t deserve care?” asks Parker. “I want for other people what I want for myself. These women should have what I have. That’s dignity and making peace with an uncertain God.”

Update: In a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, journalist Alissa Quart describes the difficulties that she and filmmaker Maisie Crow faced reporting their multimedia project, The Last Clinic (of which this is a part) in a sometimes-threatening environment. “…Crow had her car’s tires cut. A man passing by her on her bike threatened her with a gun. Another strange man followed her from a parking lot to her motel room and waited outside the door.” But the fruits of their reporting, a 4,000-word essay and 50-minute documentary, were released in January 2013.

Since then, challenges to Mississippi’s law requiring doctors providing abortion services to have hospital admitting privileges have made their way through the courts. On Monday, a district court judge blocked a similar law in Alabama.

But, as Quart noted in Reuters, “No matter your perspective on abortion rights, these states are flouting the Constitution, which is certainly a cause for dismay. And the state legislative assault on abortion is not ending. […] Even when these last clinics stay open, the pro-life movement has succeeded in making abortion incredibly difficult in a number of states. And if abortions are made impossible, women like the two dozen I met in Mississippi — often young and poor, sitting uncomfortably in brightly colored rooms that they wished they needn’t ever have to visit — would again have no choice.”

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