Politics

How Mississippi Brought Down Roe

The Mississippi State Capitol, with cars parked out front
The Mississippi State Capitol is seen in Jackson on March 11. Peter Forest/Getty Images

The state of Mississippi has just one abortion clinic: Jackson Women’s Health Organization, better known as the Pink House. And this very clinic was at the center of the recent Supreme Court decision that overruled Roe v. Wade: After Mississippi had passed a law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, the clinic sued a state health official, with the case going to the high court’s docket—and the conservative majority ruling in favor of the state, and against abortion. How did Mississippi in particular become the state that would scuttle the constitutional right to an abortion? To find out, I spoke with Ashton Pittman, senior reporter for the Mississippi Free Press, on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Gov. Tate Reeves said Friday—the day the ruling came down—was a joyous day and that he welcomed the beginning of a new pro-life agenda. I wonder what you thought when you heard that.

Ashton Pittman: Well, Mississippi has the nation’s highest infant mortality rate. We also have the highest fetal mortality rate.

It sounds like you’re calling bullshit.

It’s hard to call this a pro-life state when we rank so low in so many things. We have these extremely high uninsurance rates: people who don’t have health care or access, and live in counties where they don’t even have a hospital because those hospitals have shut down.

There was actually a state Supreme Court case last November in which a woman sued her employer because, she said, they fired her after they found out she was pregnant. The court basically said the employer can fire you for getting pregnant and you can’t do anything about it. So, we have not built any kind of infrastructure in this state for a “pro-life” agenda. We have not built infrastructure to deal with kids being born to mothers who don’t have the resources to care for them. We’ve done none of that work.

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Back in 2015, when you were still in college, you wrote this short opinion piece for the New York Times saying the most important issue for you was the makeup of the Supreme court. I look back at it now and think it was really prescient. It seems like you got that idea because from a very young age, in your church youth group, you were being told that this is the most important thing. You realized there was this incredible momentum to swing the court. Did it feel like people outside of the evangelical space didn’t quite understand that?

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Yes, it did. In the evangelical church, I was given a strong appreciation for what the Supreme Court can do, because I knew abortion wasn’t going to be outlawed by Congress. Later on, once I left evangelicalism, I still saw the Supreme Court as so pivotal when it comes to voting rights and civil rights. And I’m a gay man: I knew Congress wasn’t going to legalize gay marriage, but I knew that my future rights, my right to marry, depended on who sat on the court. I had assumed that liberals and Democrats were talking just as much about how important it was to have their people on the court, and then I found out, once I got into college and talked to people who weren’t evangelicals or Republicans, I learned this isn’t as big of an issue on the other side of the aisle.

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On election night 2016, I was like, OK, Roe v. Wade will be overturned, and there’s a chance marriage equality is also gonna be overturned. Because I knew that the next president, as I wrote in that 2015 article, was going to have the power to appoint at least two justices, possibly three. People in 2016 actually responded to that article, I was fearmongering in favor of one candidate or the other. I hadn’t mentioned a candidate in that article, I just said this is the most important Issue, because it affects every right, every piece of legislation Congress passes.

Politicians in Mississippi have been trying to poke holes in the constitutional right to abortion for a long time, and not just through the courts. Back in 2011, when you were a student journalist, you covered an attempt to pass a “personhood amendment” to Mississippi’s constitution and interviewed anti-abortion activists who actually moved to the state thinking that if giving fetuses rights was going to happen anywhere, it would happen here.

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They saw Mississippi as a ripe opportunity because we’re a conservative state with only one abortion clinic. They saw Mississippi as really ripe for pushing anti-abortion legislation and testing anti-abortion laws, and setting the groundwork to challenge Roe v. Wade.

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The idea at the time with a personhood amendment was basically that if you define a fetus or a fertilized egg as a person, they should have 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law. What the process actually showed was that Mississippi voters did not want this extreme kind of abortion ban: There were a lot of people who considered themselves anti-abortion who, once they understood what was in the personhood amendment—that it wouldn’t allow exceptions for rape or incest or for the life of the mother—joined a ground well of opposition to it. Voters rejected the amendment by almost 60 percent. But a bill is in Congress, called the Life at Conception Act, that would do something very similar. It has 168 Republican sponsors between the House and Senate, with a majority of house Republicans, I believe so. So, there’s a continuity with this stuff, and I think you’re gonna see a bigger push for that nationwide now.

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You’ve reported deeply about the origins of the Dobbs case, specifically its origins in a law that was not born necessarily in the Mississippi Legislature, but first drafted by a group known as the Alliance Defending Freedom. I’m wondering if you can lay out how a group like the ADF joined forces with Mississippi politicians there, and what that meant.

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In 2018, we had three Mississippi lawmakers introduce identical 15-week abortion bans. The exact same wording: banning abortion at 15 weeks. no exceptions for rape. A few weeks before the lawmakers introduced these bans, ADF leaders were at this anti-abortion rally and announced that they had this plan to either make Roe irrelevant or completely reverse it: They explained that they had drafted laws that would ban abortions at 15 weeks. They had also drafted some other options that they were shopping to lawmakers and states, and they explained that, with Trump changing the Supreme Court, they believed they could get one of these abortion bans to the court and either overturn or seriously weaken Roe v. Wade.

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So just a few weeks after they explained this plan, the bills they wrote are introduced in Mississippi by these lawmakers. Within two months, Gov. Phil Bryant was signing the 15-week abortion ban into law, and I believe that same day, Jackson Women’s Health Organization filed a lawsuit.

The ADF has this idea that it wants a “Christian worldview in every area of the law.” It’s not exaggerating: It wants Christian ideas and evangelical views to be a part of the law, to make them part of the way the national government is run. It’s motivated by this idea that its religion and views should dominate.

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It sounds like this group that wants to establish a theocracy is steering policy in this country through the Supreme Court.

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That’s exactly what’s happening. If you look at the Trump administration, he had a lot of people surrounding him who were what you would call Christian Dominionists. They were a big part of Jan. 6.

The next few days are going to be critical in Mississippi. The Mississippi attorney general certified the state’s “trigger law” earlier this week, meaning abortions are supposed to be banned within 10 days. But Jackson Women’s Health has sued to stop the law from taking effect. So in Mississippi, abortion is still being argued about in court.

I think you’re going to see the people at Jackson continuing to do what they do. They’re going to continue trying to get patients in and help as many as they can, while protesters are out there trying to run people off. My impression is that the clinic is not going to remain open for any services after this trigger law goes into effect, but there already reproductive rights activists who have worked to teach people how to self-manage their own abortions.

Looking at the language of the trigger law, something I couldn’t quite figure out is whether abortion pills will still be legal in Mississippi,. It seems clear to me that they shouldn’t be illegal, but then I’m also seeing quotes from activists like this woman, Michelle cologne, who you’ve spent a lot of time with over the years, she’s a clinic defender. And she basically said, We’re gonna be giving out the abortion pill, right under people’s noses. Like we are not going away. And that seems to be where this battle is headed.

We’ve talked to, to lawmakers who have said that they would like to come back and pass legislation to try to prevent people from being able to get the pills. I’m not sure what that’s gonna look like though.

I think you’re gonna see some of these activists move on to things like fighting plan B, but I would be surprised LGBTQ rights didn’t become one of their next targets. And I don’t think we’re gonna have lawmakers in Mississippi eager to protect us. They certainly haven’t tried to protect LGBTQ rights in the past. It’s a scary time to be in.

Read more of Slate’s coverage on abortion rights here.

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