Mississippi advocates for creating a strategy for a post-Roe world

JACKSON, Miss. – As The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday approx reverse a nearly 50-year precedent for abortion rights, a young woman wearing a “Bans off my body” T-shirt walked to a white poster in a ballroom of a hotel in downtown Jackson.

Several members and supporters of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition had written down messages on a series of pink, blue and orange stickers – what they would like to say to the judges.

“I remember going to Cuba or Sweden to have an abortion. Not again.”

“Protect Black Women.”

She added the latest in pink ink on a neon green note:

“Understand the power you have and the real life this affects.”

The racially diverse group gathered around linen-covered tables in the Westin was only a few miles away the state’s only abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, whose attorneys were in court in Washington Wednesday morning. It was clear to many in the banquet hall that patients’ ability to have an abortion in Mississippi – and indeed the fate of abortion rights nationwide – depended on the pending decision.

Members of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition were not optimistic that the Supreme Court would rule in their favor next year – instead, they steeled themselves for more restrictions in a state where it is already difficult to get an abortion.

“We do not want to go underground,” said Valencia Robinson, executive director of Mississippi in Action, which advocates for people living with HIV and providing education on sexual health. She and others said they were already working to mobilize supporters who could help with transportation to the Jackson Clinic and help with the financial barriers that often prevent access to abortion.

Advocate for abortion rights, Valencia Robinson, cheers at a meeting in Jackson. Rory Doyle to NBC News

A 2018 Mississippi law that largely bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy set the stage for this moment. The restrictions, which were dropped by lower courts and never enforced, defy the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which established abortion rights before fetal viability, or the stage at which a fetus can survive outside the womb. Medical experts say the benchmark is between 23 and 24 weeks, long after the point Mississippi seeks to limit access. In its argument for the law, the Mississippi asks the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Neighboring Louisiana is one of several states with triggering laws that would largely make abortion illegal if the 1973 landmark ruling falls. Lakeesha Harris, an activist from Louisiana who traveled to Jackson to speak at an abortion meeting on Wednesday, reminded the audience that the consequences of what started as a state-level restriction in Mississippi do not exist in a silo.

“It affects Louisiana,” she said. “It affects Texas. Oppression does not know the limits of state borders.”

Wednesday’s oral arguments made it clear that the stratified barriers – both legislative and cultural – that had left the Mississippi as the only state in the Deep South with a single abortion clinic were not contained within the state’s borders.

“While the rest of the country is getting ready to feel what it’s like to be Mississippi… we’re still experiencing a roe deer climate,” said Michelle Colon, a member of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition that founded SHERo Mississippi, a reproductive justice collective led by black women. “If you only have one clinic, it’s a big barrier to access.”

The night before members of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition gathered to listen to the Supreme Court’s arguments that could settle Roe v. Wade, opponents of abortion rights stood before the Jackson Women’s Health Organization to pray for just that result.

“This case tomorrow may make Mississippi the first domino to fall,” said Steve Karlen, campaign director of 40 Days for Life, a nonprofit organization that heads annual abortion vigils.

A speaker shared his dream that “Pink House”, as the facility is known for its pastel color, would become a church.

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