The news that the U.S. Supreme Court is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade reverberated across Mississippi on Tuesday as pro-choice and anti-abortion activists and politicians took stock of what the leak means for the future of their movements.
On Monday, Politico released a leaked draft opinion which indicated the U.S. Supreme Court is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, potentially setting the stage for the procedure to become illegal in Mississippi and many other states.
For years, Kim Gibson watched as Mississippi lawmakers chipped away at the constitutionally protected right to abortion as people outside the state responded with some version of, “That’s just Mississippi, it doesn’t matter.”
Mississippi reproductive rights advocates say the country is about to look a lot more like the state where they have long struggled — with limited support and resources from national organizations — to protect access to abortion.
By 2008, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization was the only abortion clinic left in the state. She and Derenda Hancock founded We Engage to reduce abortion stigma and help protect the “Pink House Defenders,” the clinic escorts who guide JWHO patients through the gauntlet of pro-life protesters outside. Now, the clinic is at the center of the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, through which the Supreme Court looks set to overturn Roe v. Wade and put an end to legal abortion in Mississippi and much of the rest of the country.
“Ignore Mississippi at your own peril, and here we are,” Gibson said.
Gibson said the Pink House Defenders and We Engage were focused on Tuesday on “business as usual.”
“Abortion is legal,” she said. “We all need to magnify that. We need to let patients know that today abortion is legal in Mississippi and will continue to be so until that decision is properly rendered.”
Gibson expressed frustration that while national organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America command large budgets and name recognition around the country, groups like We Engage are providing practical support to people seeking abortions in places where that act is met with hostility.
It’s too early to say what the end of Roe would mean for We Engage. But Gibson doesn’t see ending legal abortion as the end-game in Mississippi. She’s looking to the next legislative session with dread, expecting to see laws banning interstate travel for people seeking abortions and more.
“What it looks like is people giving birth in situations they don’t want to. It looks like people being forced to birth children,” she said. “People with means and money and privilege will be able to get the care that they need. Those that can’t won’t, and they will suffer consequences.”
When she heard the news, Laurie Betram Roberts felt like she’d been punched in the gut.
“There’s a difference between planning for something and living through it… seeing it in writing was so blatantly cruel,” Roberts, co-founder of Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund and executive director of Yellowhammer Fund, said.
Roberts was especially disturbed by the way Justice Samuel Alito “weaponized race” in the draft opinion, noting the disproportionate number of Black fetuses that are aborted without also acknowledging the underlying equity issues that cause that to be the case.
In a footnote, Justice Alito suggested that early supporters of abortion rights in America were motivated by racism.
“Some such supporters have been motivated by a desire to suppress the size of the African American population,” Alito wrote. “It is beyond dispute that Roe has had that demographic effect. A highly disproportionate percentage of aborted fetuses are black.”
“To act as if we have no agency … it’s bizarre to hear that coming from people who do not advocate for policies that make it easier for Black and brown people to exist and have productive and happy and equitable lives,” Roberts said.
Even though the leak suggests an end to abortion access in the Deep South and Mississippi, Roberts says she’s still hopeful that the end of Roe wouldn’t mean the end of abortion rights in America forever.
“Pendulums always swing back and extremists can only hold power for so long,” Roberts said.
Roberts is also focused on what the work of her abortion funds would look like in a post-Roe world. That work will emphasize harm reduction and includes expanding education efforts around self managed abortions. It also includes fighting the criminalization of abortion by pushing health care providers to not report people who seek to terminate their pregnancies and pushing district attorneys to not prosecute them.
Reproductive justice work doesn’t start and stop with abortion access, Roberts said. Many of the people who have interacted with abortion funds still need the other resources they provide like food, diapers and period products.
“All that stuff counts and it’s essential,” Roberts said.
Pro-life activists were relatively quiet on Tuesday — there were no protests or events held outside the clinic in Jackson. Mississippi Today reached out to Pro Life Mississippi and Right To Life Mississippi for a comment but did not receive a response by publishing time.
Republican elected officials, who have long called for the end of abortion in Mississippi, strongly condemned the leak of Alito’s opinion and called for the Court to overturn Roe.
“Everyone is rightly outraged over the alleged leak in the MS abortion case. Let’s think bigger. For decades, America has been uniquely radical in the West. Our abortion laws look like China & N. Korea. Please pray for wisdom & courage for SCOTUS. Countless lives can be saved,” Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted on Tuesday.
Before oral arguments at the Supreme Court in December, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch took an early victory lap of sorts, walking in slow motion on the steps of the Court in a slickly produced video posted to her Twitter account and publishing a Washington Post op-ed arguing that women no longer need abortion access.
After the leak of a draft opinion that sided overwhelmingly with her office’s arguments, however, Fitch was circumspect.
“We will let the Supreme Court speak for itself and wait for the Court’s official opinion,” she said in a statement.
Phillip Gunn, Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, celebrated the legislation that led to the Dobbs case.
“MS House Republicans led to protect the unborn with the passage of HB1510, now on review in Dobbs. Their efforts put us in a position to protect unborn lives. While I condemn the leak, I pray the Supreme Court will stand up for the sanctity of life and overturn Roe,” Gunn tweeted.