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In Miss., an effective attack against abortion

The state's last clinic is fighting for the right to remain open. Mark Potter reports.

On a hot, steamy morning, dozens of young women made a hurried walk from the parking lot to the front door of Mississippi's last abortion clinic.

Greeting them outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization were about 10 anti-abortion activists, some carrying signs with gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses.

From a few feet away, through the bars of an iron fence, they tried passionately to convince the clinic patients not to have an abortion.

One of the protesters yelled out, "Don't let them make you the mother of a dead child forever."  And then, as each woman opened the clinic door, another activist shouted, "Momma, please don't kill me. Daddy, I want to live."

Clinic officials said it is an everyday occurrence here in the state that activists on both sides of the abortion debate agree is a bellwether for the rest of the country.

Focusing on legislatures
As dramatic as the sidewalk confrontations might seem, it appears a much more effective attack on abortion has been made in the Mississippi Legislature, which in recent years has passed numerous laws restricting abortion clinics and practitioners.

Where once there were 10 abortion clinics, the only one left is in Jackson, forcing many women — mostly poor and black — to drive long distances. 

By law, each patient must attend a consultation with a clinic doctor, then wait 24 hours before actually having the procedure. Doctors are required to perform ultrasound examinations before the operation and then offer the patient the opportunity to see and hear the results.

Perhaps most controversial, doctors are also ordered to tell patients there is a link between abortions, infertility and breast cancer.

Dr. Joseph Booker of the Jackson Women's Health Organization said he refuses to inform patients of such a link, claiming medical studies prove it not to be true. 

Angry with the Legislature, Booker argues, "There's absolutely no medical reason for any of these restrictions that they put on us."

The former administrator of the clinic, Betty Thompson, said the restrictions are widely felt. "The laws chip away at a woman's opportunity and right to come in and have an abortion, and I see it become more and more restrictive every year."

A clinic patient, who asked that her name be withheld, complained about the cost of having to drive across the state for the initial consultation at the only available clinic, then having to wait a day for the abortion procedure.

"The cost is just outrageous," she said. "I think they are just trying to make it hard."

More legislation expected
State Sen. Richard White, a Republican from Hines County, said his goal now is to go beyond the restrictions. "I feel like in the next couple of years you're going to see Mississippi be the first one to stop abortion."

So far, Mississippi law states that if and when the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, which allows abortions, is overturned, abortion will automatically become illegal here.

White hopes to push beyond that by sponsoring a bill to overturn abortion’s legality altogether, which would then force a court battle over Roe v. Wade itself.

For Tanya Britton, the president of Pro-Life Mississippi, an anti-abortion group, the short-term plan is to shut down the state's last remaining clinic and then focus on ending abortion nationwide.

"Not one child will die by abortion, and not one mother will be maimed by abortion. That is the ultimate goal," Britton said.

Although an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in April showed that 55 percent of respondents believed the abortion choice should be left up to a woman and her doctor, many other states are putting added restrictions on their abortion clinics, with hundreds of bills introduced last year.

"As each legislature comes into session, we see more and more regulations targeted at abortion providers and targeted at making the procedures more difficult," says Kim Gandy, the president of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

Gandy also complains about anti-abortion groups working together around the country. "They've gone now to coordinated legislative efforts, and you can see the coordination when you look at the language. It's identical state after state after state," she said.

Supreme Court ruling
Last April, in a ruling that could have a dramatic long-term effect, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on late-term abortions, also known as "partial-birth" abortions.

The 5-4 decision in the case of Gonzales v. Carhart electrified anti-abortion activists and caused abortion rights supporters great concern.

White, the Mississippi state senator who fiercely opposes abortion, said of the decision, "That day was hallelujah day." 

Women's rights supporters predict anti-abortion activists will now step up their attacks and could introduce a flood of anti-abortion bills around the country next year.

"Our opponents have been emboldened by the Supreme Court to pass legislation, believing the Supreme Court will not reverse it, something they couldn't count on before," said Gandy, the NOW president.

At the Jackson abortion clinic, workers and doctors are bracing for more difficulties with protesters and legislators.

Former administrator Thomas, who is now a consultant for the facility, said she is afraid the protections of Roe v. Wade will be chipped away and eventually overturned nationwide if abortion rights supporters don't become more active politically.

"They are looking at themselves when they look at Mississippi if nothing is done to keep abortion legal and safe," she warned. 

On the potential future of abortion in American, she and Britton, the Pro-Life Mississippi president, would seem to agree. "It goes beyond Mississippi." Britton said. "We can never stop even when we have no more abortion clinics in this state."