The Difficulty of Obtaining an Abortion in Mississippi Is By Design
The state's restrictions on reproductive healthcare help an economy "powered by feminized poverty"
Sociologist Serita Wheeler got an abortion over a decade ago while an undergrad at Mississippi State.
Today, the clinic she visited is closed. and there’s only one left in the entire state—an example of Mississippi’s increasingly draconian restrictions on reproductive healthcare that’s made a bad problem worse.
"We never had sufficient access in the first place," Wheeler told me.
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"They created a denomination to uphold slavery"
Wheeler calls Mississippi’s tight restrictions on abortion “the pregnancy-poverty connection” for the state’s businesses.
"Basically, women get pregnant in their first two years of college—I did—and dropout and become a part of the low wage workforce that powers this state,” Wheeler said.
"The major industries in this state are food, hospitality, tourism, and retirement; all powered by feminized poverty," Wheeler continued.
The question is whether low wages are an unintended consequence of the restrictions on reproductive healthcare or whether the state's power elites are "using religion to keep their low wage labor force." To Wheeler, it’s clear that the economic boon for Mississippi businesses provided by the state's restrictive reproductive healthcare laws is inextricably tied to the religious narrative behind them. It's part of what she called "Evangelical Apartheid in Mississippi": a way to dress up systemic oppression in Christianity.
"They created a denomination to uphold slavery," Wheeler said.
"The South is an abortion desert"
Access to reproductive healthcare in Mississippi depends a lot on your financial status. A recent study conducted by Access Reproductive Care-Southeast in collaboration with the Center for Reproductive Health Research in the Southeast at Emory University showed just that: "86% of our callers from Mississippi are on Medicaid or uninsured, 79% are already parents and over half are traveling 50 miles or more for care," the group’s co-director Quita Tinsley Peterson said.
"This data only validates what we know to be true from the conversations we have every day," Tinsley Peterson said. "The folks most impacted by barriers to abortion are already navigating extreme barriers to care across the healthcare spectrum."
Laurie Roberts, executive director abortion access group Yellowhammer Fund, told me that even in a region where access to reproductive healthcare is heavily restricted, Mississippi's laws stand out.
"The South is an abortion desert, and I've been using that term for a decade," Roberts said.
People in Mississippi who need access to care face immense barriers. Roberts cited waiting periods, protesters, and social stigma as primary difficulties facing people in need of abortions. Many people living near Mississippi’s borders seek abortions in neighboring states like Florida and Alabama.
"Only having one clinic alone is a restriction," Roberts said. "Because that means you can't go to a clinic that is close to you."
"We'd more than likely see a domino effect"
The Supreme Court last month announced that in its coming term it will hear a case on Mississippi's 15-week abortion ban—and the ruling could upend nearly 50 years of abortion law precedent. The ban, which was signed into law in 2018, was struck down almost immediately by lower courts on Constitutional grounds.
But the fact that the Supreme Court is now choosing to hear the case, Tinsley Peterson told me, is an attack on Roe v Wade, the landmark case that established in 1973 that there was a Constitutional right to an abortion.
"If Roe is overturned through this decision, abortion access will essentially be non-existent in the Southeast, a region where care is already severely lacking," Tinsley Peterson said.
If the high court holds up the ban, that could affect more than just Mississippi.
"We'd more than likely see a domino effect across the Southeast as many of these states have also passed similar abortion bans," Tinsley Peterson said.
"It's about everything that happens to someone while they're pregnant"
Roberts told me she's not sure that the court will uphold the law, noting that Chief Justice John Roberts seems more focused on his legacy than on being "the guy who goes down in history as the one who tanked Roe."
Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of abortion testimony group We Testify, told me that she shares Roberts's hope that the court will uphold precedent. She emphasized that the experience of having an abortion is not alien to Americans—nearly one in four people in the US able to have children have had one—and said she hopes the justices will "recognize that everyone loves someone who had an abortion, and that access must remain intact for all of us, forever."
No matter the outcome at the high court, the fight in Mississippi is ongoing. Roberts listed a number of issues that continue to affect abortion access in the state and around the country: the Hyde Amendment, fetus personhood laws, and other measures intended to directly attack Roe in the Supreme Court if this effort fails.
And abortion access is only part of the battle for bodily autonomy, Roberts told me.
"It's about everything that happens to someone while they're pregnant," Roberts said. "Whether or not they can be forced to have a C-section, whether or not they could have a home birth, whether or not they can undergo cancer treatment, whether or not they can do anything, whether or not they can be criminalized for what they have ingested while they were pregnant."