Abortion under siege in Mississippi

Preaching that abortion is as evil as Islam, Nazism and homosexuality, dozens of activists have descended on Jackson, determined to shut down the state's last abortion clinic.

Published August 1, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Flip Benham was going to burn a Koran at Mississippi's state Capitol on July 18 but he couldn't get a fire permit. The blaze was to be the culmination of an antiabortion rally that Benham, director of Operation Save America, billed as an "ecclesiastical court." His attack on Islam might seem like a non sequitur, but to Benham, it made perfect sense. "Islam is the same thing as abortion and homosexuality," he said. "It's the black-colored glove covering the same fist, which is the fist of the devil." Benham had T-shirts made up, black with white lettering, proclaiming, "Homosexuality Is Sin! Islam Is a Lie! Abortion Is Murder! Some Issues Are Just Black and White!"

About 100 people gathered for the rally in the vicious heat, many of them, from huge-bellied men to toddlers, wearing Benham's T-shirts. It was three days into Operation Save America's weeklong siege of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. From July 15 to July 22, protesters -- sometimes a few dozen, sometimes more than 100 -- surrounded the clinic, an off-white stucco building ringed by a metal gate, hoisting photos of aborted fetuses blown up to the size of 4-year-olds. The clinic brought in McCoy Faulkner, a security expert who specializes in violence against abortion providers. It changed its hours to deal with the onslaught, scheduling some appointments before 6 a.m. so patients could dodge the horde of demonstrators who converged a few hours later. Still, even at dawn, women had to brave a gantlet of shouting people.

At the Capitol, demonstrators formed two makeshift walls with huge signs that juxtaposed photos of aborted fetuses with lynching victims and corpses piled up at Nazi death camps. Behind them rose a statue -- a monument honoring Confederate women -- of garlanded ladies succoring a fallen man. Organizers set up speakers and played the kind of celestial music that signifies heaven in Hollywood movies, lending the proceedings a kitschy intensity. Standing before the assembly, Benham, a sturdy Texan with sun-cured skin, short brown hair, and the hearty manner of a high school football coach, cried out, "What is happening in Jackson today is exactly what happened in Nazi Germany!"

To Benham, waiting for a new Supreme Court justice to overturn Roe v. Wade is like being a German who heard and saw nothing. Impatient for change, he and his followers are determined to make Roe functionally irrelevant -- the right to an abortion doesn't mean much if women can't exercise it. In their struggle, they've made the Jackson Women's Health Organization their ground zero. Theyre convinced that if they can close down the last abortion clinic in the state, where abortion rights already hang by a political thread, their crusade will gain momentum across the country. On July 30, another antiabortion group, Oh Saratoga, based in upstate New York, commenced its own seven days of protests in Jackson. Its Web site promises to bring a "summer tsunami against that states final 'abortuary.'"

"We're not waiting for the president, we're not waiting for the Congress, we're not waiting for the Supreme Court," Benham told me a few days before the rally. "This issue can't be won from the top down." At Benham's side for much of the week was Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, who since 1995 has been an evangelical antiabortion activist. "It would really please the Lord God if Mississippi becomes the first abortion-free state," she said, as she stood in front of the Jackson Women's Health Organization one scorched morning. "Then all he'd have to worry about are the other 49." She happily reeled off the names of states where abortion bans have been introduced or passed: "South Dakota, Ohio, Louisiana"

Benham's "ecclesiastical court," a ritualized indictment of the Supreme Court for breaching God's law, dramatized his contempt for the current legal regime. Before him sat a small grill like the kind football fans use at tailgate parties; he asked the two dozen or so children in attendance to gather around it.

One by one, as Elysian hymns poured from the speakers, Benham produced the texts of objectionable Supreme Court decisions. He started with 1947's Everson v. Board of Education, the case where Justice Hugo Black wrote, "In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between Church and State." He went on to decisions outlawing school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading. As each decision was introduced, a man sounded a shofar. Benham shouted denunciations and asked the kids to rip up the pages and throw them onto the grill. Someone pounded a bass drum.

"There's coming a time when it might cost you your life to stand up for King Jesus," Benham told the children. "It is our prayer that if you go down, you go down standing up in the name of Jesus."

When Benham got to Roe v. Wade, he summoned McCorvey, a short woman with curly brown hair, dressed in a violet T-shirt and shorts. She and Benham go way back. He opened Operation Rescue's national headquarters next to the abortion clinic where she worked; he gradually won her over during her smoking breaks. In 1995, Benham baptized her in a backyard swimming pool in Dallas. At the Capitol, he handed her the pages of the decision bearing her alias and she ripped it up, telling the crowd, "You're so beautiful. I'm so sorry for what I did."

"We love you, Miss Norma," Benham said. He continued with his excoriations, condemning 1993's Planned Parenthood v. Casey and 2003's Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the state's anti-sodomy law. "Lawrence versus Texas did away with all 4,000 years of historical law," he said. "It does away with everything the Bible says!"

Benham then produced a rainbow gay flag. As he lamented the way homosexuals "stole the colors of the rainbow," several men in attendance grabbed pieces of it and ripped it to shreds. Then he held up a paperback copy of the Koran and said, "We have one more issue that we must deal with. With this issue we have three choices. We can either kill them, be killed by them, or we can convert them to Christ." Several cheers went up in the crowd, and then, after several more minutes of preaching, Benham began to tear the Koran apart. He offered pieces of the book to the men in the crowd -- hands seemed to reach out from all directions to take them -- and they destroyed the pages further, throwing the scraps onto the grill.

Rows of cops were standing behind him, ready to move the moment they saw an illegal spark. Evidently, Benham didn't want to go to jail that day, so he waited until the evening, when the group held its regular meeting at the Making Jesus Real Church in the nearby town of Pearl. The Operation Save America members put the grill in the church parking lot. McCorvey struck the match that burned the shredded symbols.

Operation Save America can seem more like a farce than a threat. Yet for abortion-rights advocates, it's both. On the surface, Benham's Mississippi sojourn didn't look victorious. There were, at most, a few hundred demonstrators in Jackson. The daily protests at the Jackson Women's Health Organization created a constant, low-level state of emergency among the clinic's staff, intimidated many of the patients, and added to the anxiety that plagues doctors living with the omnipresent threat of violence. But it was a far cry from the 1990s, when the group, then known as Operation Rescue, brought tens of thousands of protesters to cities like Wichita and Buffalo, where they tried, and sometimes succeeded, in physically shutting clinics down.

Lately, though, the tension has been rising. The same day as Benham's rally at the Capitol, protesters descended on the block of Dr. Joseph Booker, a gynecologist at the Jackson Women's Health Organization, for the first time in 10 years. They went door to door, ringing bells and telling people their neighbor was a baby killer. A few weeks before, protesters led by Benham showed up at the Raleigh, N.C., home of Susan Hill, owner of the Jackson Women's Health Organization. It was the first time that had ever happened. Soon Hill started receiving death threats. "We worry that they're being emboldened," Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and a longtime friend of Hill's, said of militant antiabortion activists. "There does seem to be an increase in activity and harassment."

Betty Thompson, former director of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, noted that someone has rented an apartment across the street from the clinic as a base for protesters. "I think they feel they have the power," she said. "All eyes are on Mississippi now."

Thompson retired from the clinic in 2004 due to health problems; these days, she's a consultant. She's a warm, 58-year-old black woman whose work has been inspired by the misery she endured when she got pregnant as a 16-year-old high school student in a small Mississippi town. She had the baby and today adores her grown son. But she still wishes she'd had a choice. "It was a real tough time, a real tough time," she said, recalling the anger of her family and the ostracism of her peers. "It's too hard on the woman, too, too hard. So you're either on the side of the fetus or the side of the woman."

A decade ago, there were six clinics in Mississippi, but the combination of constant harassment and onerous state regulations led one after another to shut down; since 2004, Jackson Women's Health Organization has been alone. "They're using the tactics of a war of attrition," Smeal said. "What you do is you [attack] in the hinterlands, don't hit them in their strong point until you become so strong that you can penetrate it. So they target, and then they move on. Close that clinic, move to the next. It's a classic strategy."

The Jackson Women's Health Organization won't fall easily. Hill and Booker are every bit as committed as Benham and his crew are. Hill owns five clinics throughout the country and is used to being on constant alert. Over the years, her facilities have been subjected to 17 arsons or fire bombings, as well as butyric acid attacks and anthrax threats. One of the doctors who worked for her, David Gunn, was murdered. "Fortunately we've been safer in the last few years for whatever reasons," Hill said. "Thank God there haven't been the shootings. But there is a feeling that things are ramping up. The protesters are more vocal -- they're screaming, not just protesting, more like they were in the late '80s."

By and large, the people who've shown up in Jackson have not been as belligerent as their rhetoric. Historically, though, the doctors who've been targeted by protests have been the ones most likely to be assaulted or killed by extremists. "All we can say is, when protests at a clinic go up, that's when there tends to be a shooting," Smeal said. Many of the abortion providers who've been shot, including George Tiller in Wichita, Kan., John Britton in Pensacola, Fla., and Barnett Slepian in Buffalo, N.Y., had been subjects of repeated demonstrations and threats. Their names were put on hit lists, and wanted posters and information about them circulated throughout the violent wing of the antiabortion movement.

Booker is one of the gynecologists who've been singled out by militant antiabortion forces. He's been stalked repeatedly, and during the 1990s, he was put under the protection of federal marshals. "We were very fearful he was going to be killed," Smeal said.

Booker had a police escort during the recent protests, but if he's afraid, he won't admit it. A 62-year-old black man with a trim, white-streaked mustache and goatee, and a stud in his left ear, Booker said the harassment has been increasing, but he dismissed the protesters as "more bark than bite. If you don't dont get intimidated, they get frustrated and don't show up as much." Raised on the poor outskirts of Pittsburgh and educated in San Francisco, Booker described himself as "a Yankee, pro-choice, outspoken and black. And that's a bad combination in Mississippi." He added, "You don't mess with a ghetto person and think they're going to back down."

The doctor said he has a "deep passion in my heart" for a woman's right to chose. He was in medical school in 1973 and recalled doing a rotation at the San Francisco General emergency room. "I saw a lady come through who had an illegal abortion," he said. "And when you see a lady come through who is hemorrhaging, who has a fever of 104 or 105, has severe peritonitis because she had her uterus punctured, that's a sight you don't forget." Nothing the protesters can do, he insisted, will close down the Jackson Women's Health Organization. "There's too much spirit by me, and too much spirit by Susan Hill. We are both fighters, we've both been through the wars. They thought we'd be closed down this week because we're afraid of them, but they don't know me and they don't know Susan."

The protests are just one side of the vise in which the Jackson Women's Health Organization is caught. It's also being squeezed by an expanding array of antiabortion legislation that's made Mississippi perhaps the most difficult state in America to terminate a pregnancy. Even as the clinic hangs on, Mississippi offers the country's clearest view of the religious right's social agenda in action. It's a case study of the way conservatives are making Roe irrelevant and a harbinger of an America without choice.

The state government recently came close to passing a sweeping abortion ban, and many expect it will do so in the next legislative session. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour -- who declared an official "a week of prayer regarding the sanctity of human life" before the anniversary of Roe v. Wade -- has said he intends to sign it. Even without the ban, the state leads the nation in antiabortion legislation. It's one of only two states in America where teenagers seeking abortions need the consent of both parents, and one of only two where abortion providers are required to give patients medically inaccurate information linking abortion to breast cancer. Abortion facilities must comply with 35 pages of regulations, including vague directives like one mandating that clinics be located in an "attractive setting."

The same strategy at work in Mississippi is being used all across the country. According to the National Abortion Federation, 500 state-level antiabortion bills were introduced last year, and 26 were signed into law. The number of abortion providers dropped 11 percent between 1996 and 2000, and almost 90 percent of U.S. counties lack abortion services. At the national level, Republicans are working to strengthen these restrictions; last week, the Senate passed a bill making it a crime to take a minor across state lines to evade parental consent laws.

Not everyone in Mississippi is antiabortion, of course, but the movement's ideology tends to pervade public life. One morning, a white taxi that said "Choose Life" on its side pulled into the parking lot of the Jackson Women's Health Organization. Out jumped one of the clinic's surgical technicians. She had been driven to work by her boyfriend, a cab driver, whose boss, the owner of Veterans Taxi, had emblazoned the antiabortion message on every car in his fleet. Many people drive cars with special state license plates that say "Choose Life"; Mississippi gives much of the proceeds from the plates to Christian crisis pregnancy centers.

More than two dozen such centers operate in the state, serving as the most prominent dispensers of reproductive health advice. They look very much like ordinary women's health clinics and offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, but they exist primarily to dissuade women from having abortions. When Booker ran a clinic in Gulfport, Miss., a crisis pregnancy center set up right next door. It imitated his sign, and a lot of his patients ended up wandering in there by accident, only to be confused when people who looked like nurses tried to talk them out of aborting.

Crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs, have a record of misleading women. During a recent investigation into CPCs, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., had staffers call 25 centers posing as pregnant 17-year-olds. They reached 23 of them, and of those 23, 20 provided false or misleading information about abortion. "Often these federally funded centers grossly misrepresented the medical risks of abortion, telling the callers that having an abortion could increase the risk of breast cancer, result in sterility, and lead to suicide and 'post-abortion stress disorder,'" Waxman wrote in a report released this month.

None of those claims is true. The National Cancer Institute concluded in 2002 that "induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk." Similarly, medical consensus holds that first-trimester abortions don't impair fertility. The American Psychological Association reports: "The best studies available on psychological responses to unwanted pregnancy terminated by abortion in the United States suggest that severe negative reactions are rare, and they parallel those following other normal life stresses."

Like other crisis pregnancy centers nationwide, those in Mississippi tell their clients that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, infertility and a host of psychiatric disorders. Although the women who come to them are virtually all both sexually active and unprepared for motherhood, they are counseled against contraception, told that abstinence is the only answer for the unwed.

At Jackson's Center for Pregnancy Choices, which gets roughly $20,000 a year in payments from the state's sale of Choose Life plates, I picked up a pamphlet about condoms. It warns that "using condoms is like playing Russian roulette ... In chamber one you have a condom that breaks and you get syphilis, in chamber two, you have an STD that condoms don't protect against at all, in chamber three you have a routinely fatal disease, in chamber four you have a new STD that hasn't even been studied."

According to Barbara Beavers, the pretty, honey-voiced mother of four who runs the Center for Pregnancy Choices, as many as 40 percent of the pregnancy tests the center administer come back negative. Some of the women who take them live with their boyfriends, making a commitment to abstinence unlikely. But Beavers is unapologetic about her opposition to birth control, in part because she thinks a woman whose contraception fails might feel more entitled to an abortion. "They think, it wasn't their fault anyhow, so let's just go ahead and kill it," she said. The best birth control, she added, "is self-control."

A girl in Mississippi would have to do some digging to find other sources of information about contraception. When it comes to sex education, the schools teach either abstinence or nothing at all. "You would be surprised what they don't understand about their own bodies," Thompson, the former director of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, said about the clinic's patients. "It still amazes me what they don't know."

Even when girls and women manage to learn about birth control, getting it isn't always easy. Besides private physicians, the only places that provide birth control prescriptions are the Jackson Women's Health Organization and the offices of the State Department of Health. Once a woman gets a prescription, there's no guarantee she'll be able to fill it. Mississippi is one of eight states with "conscience clause" laws that protect the jobs of pharmacists who refuse to dispense contraceptives. It's especially hard to obtain emergency contraception. According to a survey by the Feminist Majority Foundation, of 25 pharmacies in Jackson, only two stock EC. Booker said he's written several EC prescriptions, only to find his patients unable to fill them.

There's no indication that Mississippi's policies have led to increased chastity. There is, however, plenty of evidence that both women and their children are suffering. Mississippi has the third-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country and the highest teenage birth rate. It is tied with Louisiana for America's worst infant morality rate. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, more than half of the state's children under 6 years old live in destitution.

Despite all the hurdles placed in their way, many women in the state remain determined to end their unwanted pregnancies. They come from as far as three and a half hours away to reach the Jackson Women's Health Organization. Often they have to make the trip twice -- or spend the night in their cars -- because Mississippi mandates a 24-hour waiting period between a woman's initial consultation and her abortion. Even when Operation Save America isn't in town, a handful of protesters maintain a constant presence.

The most faithful is C. Roy McMillan, who sees protesting abortion as his full-time job and says he's been arrested 65 times. His wife, a former abortion provider who, after being born again, became a gynecologist who refuses to prescribe contraceptives, supports him financially. McMillan is one of 34 signatories to a 1998 statement that calls the murder of doctors who perform abortions "justifiable ... for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children." He describes the late Paul Hill -- the murderer of gynecologist Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Herman Barrett -- as a friend.

By Mississippi law, women seeking abortions must sign informed consent forms, certifying that they've been told about the risks of abortion, including "danger to subsequent pregnancies, breast cancer, and infertility." Thus doctors in Mississippi are legally required to mislead their patients. At least, that seems to be the intention. Booker gets around it by taking the wording of the law literally. When patients come in for a consultation, he tells them about the links between abortion, breast cancer and infertility, explaining they are nonexistent.

For Thompson, the fact that women will leap through so many hoops to terminate their pregnancies shows that abortion will never disappear, no matter how hard the government makes it. "I've found that if a woman wants an abortion, she'll do whatever it takes," she said.

Despite the determination of everyone at the clinic, both the size and length of the protests were clearly interfering with normal operations. Thompson suspects the demonstrators kept some women away -- at least temporarily. One day, in the heat of Operation Save America's campaign, she sighed and said, "Those people who can wait, I'm sure are waiting. The clinic is probably going to have a lot of work next week."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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