The State That Brought Down Roe

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Mary Harris: Mississippi, the state that brought the case that overturned Roe v Wade has one abortion clinic. JACKSON Women’s Health. It’s better known as the Pink House because it’s painted the color of Pepto-Bismol. And last Friday, Ashton Pittman from Mississippi Free Press. He knew that the pink house was exactly where he needed to be.

Speaker 2: It was it was pure chaos. And it’s usually chaotic there. It’s always been chaotic there because there have always been protesters and there’s always been media.

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Speaker 3: Well, now abortion is illegal, and yet every individual here will still stand before God women in here.

Speaker 2: But on Friday, at the moment, the decision came down. There was a screaming and shouting and, you know, preachers on megaphones.

Speaker 3: All over for murdering their babies. But the living God, the word of God, they’ve been murdering babies, these babies all along. They’re murdering babies inside this pink, pink house. The law has come into effect now. You’ve got it all come, in fact. And people need to be prosecuted. Justice needs to be upheld now.

Speaker 2: We had some reporters ask one escort, How do you feel? And she just was angered by the question. She was like, you know, of course I’m delighted, you know, sarcastically, because it was just, you know, how do you think I feel is is kind of you know, she was getting at the level of visceral anger was so palpable and and on the other side of the road and in the middle of the road, the joy and the celebration.

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Mary Harris: The joy. The celebration. That part looked a little like a tailgate. People brought big speakers to play music and foldable camp chairs, but it all had a purpose.

Speaker 2: Anti-abortion protesters, they were immediately running to the end of the road when they saw cars starting to turn in and screaming at the people saying, Roe v Wade has been overturned. You can’t get an abortion here, which wasn’t true. It’s bad before 15 weeks. So before 15 weeks. Currently in Mississippi, you can still get an abortion until the trigger law goes into effect.

Mary Harris: What a mess.

Speaker 2: Right. It was a mess. I mean, it is a mess. And it was a mess.

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Speaker 2: And on Friday.

Mary Harris: Your governor, Tate Reeves, called Friday when the ruling came down a joyous day. And he sort of welcomed the beginning of a new pro-life agenda. I wonder what you thought when you heard that.

Speaker 2: Well, you know, Mississippi has the nation’s highest infant mortality rate. We also have the highest fetal mortality rate.

Mary Harris: It sounds like you’re calling bullshit.

Speaker 2: It’s hard to call this a pro-life state when we ranked so low in so many things. We have, you know, these extremely high uninsurance rates. You know, people who don’t have health care and don’t have health care access and live in counties where they don’t even have a hospital because those hospitals have had to shut down. You know, there was actually a mississippi state Supreme Court case last November where a woman sued her, her employer, because she said that they fired her because they found out she was pregnant. And the Mississippi Supreme Court basically said they can fire you for getting pregnant and you can’t do anything about it. So so we have not built any kind of infrastructure in this state for a, quote, unquote, pro-life agenda. We have not built infrastructure to deal with all these, you know, kids that are being born to mothers who don’t have the resources to care for them. We’ve done none of that work. Now they’re saying they’re going to do these things. But, you know, I guess we’ll see.

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Mary Harris: Today on the show, politicians in Mississippi, they may not seem like they have a plan for what happens now, but there’s no denying they’ve been key to orchestrating the overturn of Roe for everyone else. Ashton is going to explain how they did that. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around.

Mary Harris: You know, ever since this abortion case went in front of the Supreme Court, I’ve had this question in my head like, why Mississippi? Why is your state the one that’s out in front and pushing the agenda here? Do you have a good answer to that question?

Speaker 2: So do you. Do you mind if I talk a little about about myself to get there?

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Mary Harris: No, I think that’s great.

Speaker 2: Okay. So just just to kind of just to kind of back a way a good bit before I ever knew I was going to be a journalist. When I was a teenager, I was in an evangelical church, and they actually took us to the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Like, I went with my youth group and we.

Mary Harris: You were a protester?

Speaker 2: Yeah. Yeah, I was a teenager. And that was that was what my youth group did. And I knew as a teenager that the Supreme Court was the most important issue, because I remember 28, I think I was 17 or 18, I told them that, you know, I didn’t really care for John McCain as a candidate. And my youth leader told me something to the effect of, well, you have to vote for him anyway, because the Supreme Court, you know, we’re one seat away from overturning Roe v Wade. And they kind of painted Mississippi’s abortion clinic to me as the center of that fight. And to me, that has just always been the battleground.

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Mary Harris: I noticed that back in like 2015, 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. And I look back at it now, and I think it’s really prescient. But it seems to me like you got that idea because from a very young age in your church youth group, you were being told, like, this is the most important thing. And so you realized there was this incredible momentum to swing the court. Right. Did it feel like people outside of the evangelical space didn’t quite understand that?

Speaker 2: Yes, it did. In the evangelical church, I was given a strong appreciation for what the Supreme Court can do, because I knew that abortion wasn’t going to be outlawed by Congress. And then 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. So for me, I knew that 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 Supreme Court. And I had assumed that, you know, liberals and Democrats and these other groups were equally talking about how important it was to have their guys on the Supreme Court. And then I found out, you know, once I got to college and was actually talking to people who weren’t evangelicals and who weren’t Republicans, I learned, oh, wow, no, this isn’t as big of an issue on the other side of the aisle.

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Mary Harris: Hmm. It’s interesting because it just sounds like you have this experience where you saw both the way the Supreme Court could protect you because, of course, gay marriage was banned in Mississippi for a while. And the Supreme Court came in and and said that couldn’t be the case. And then also, you realized from your evangelical experience that the Supreme Court could take rights away, too. In fact, that was the plan.

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Speaker 2: Right. And, you know, on election night 2016, pretty much at that point, I was like, okay. Roe v Wade’s overturned. Marriage rights. There’s a chance that those are going to be overturned, because I knew that, you know, the next president, as I wrote in that 2015 article, the next president was going to have the power to appoint, you know, at least two justices, possibly three. And people in 2016 actually responded that article saying, oh, you’re just fear mongering. You’re just fear mongering in favor of one candidate or the other. And I hadn’t mentioned that candidate that article. I just said this is the most important issue because it affects every right, every piece of legislation Congress passes.

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Mary Harris: Ashton says politicians in Mississippi have been trying to poke holes in the constitutional right to abortion for a long time, and they haven’t just been using the courts. Back in 2011, when Ashton was still a student journalist, he covered an attempt to pass a personhood amendment to Mississippi’s constitution. He interviewed anti-abortion activists who actually moved to Mississippi, thinking that if giving fetuses rights was going to happen anywhere, it would happen here.

Speaker 2: They saw Mississippi as a ripe opportunity for a conservative state. We only had one abortion clinic. And, you know, even even a lot of the Democrats, we had an office where anti-abortion. So I think they just saw Mississippi as it was really ripe for pushing anti-abortion legislation and testing anti-abortion laws.

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Mary Harris: The goal was to challenge Roe v Wade. Right.

Speaker 2: Right. And setting the groundwork to challenge Roe v Wade. And their idea at the time with the personhood amendment that was was basically that if you define a fetus or if you define a fertilized egg as a person, then they should have 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law. I think what the personhood amendment actually showed was the Mississippi voters did not want this extreme kind of abortion ban. The reporting on the ground. Back then, there were a lot of people who consider themselves pro-life or anti-abortion, who once they understood what was in the personhood amendment and, you know, that it could it wouldn’t allow exceptions for rape or incest, that it had no specific exception from life of the mother, although the proponents claimed it did, you know that it could ban some forms of birth control and in vitro fertilization.

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Speaker 2: You know, once people heard that, there was a groundswell of opposition to it and. You know, I think voters rejected it almost 60% against it. Obviously, they didn’t succeed with that. But, you know, federal legislation, a very similar bill is in Congress called the Life Exception Act. That would do something very similar. And it has, I think, 168 Republican sponsors between the House, the Senate there.

Mary Harris: Rand Paul is a big sponsor. Right?

Speaker 2: Right. Right. And it’s got a majority of House Republicans. I believe so. So there’s a you know, there’s a continuity with this stuff. And I think I think the personhood amendment in Mississippi was premature. But I think you’re going to see a bigger push for that nationwide now.

Mary Harris: One of the things that’s interesting about your reporting is that you’ve reported so deeply about the origins of this Dobbs case, which overturns Roe, specifically its origins in a law. And you’ve written about how that law was actually not born necessarily in the Mississippi legislature. It was drafted by a group known as the Alliance Defending Freedom. I’m wondering if you can lay out how a group like the ADF sort of joined forces with the state of Mississippi and politicians there and what that meant.

Speaker 2: Right. So so the ATF, you know, they’re they’re kind of they have this idea that they want a quote unquote Christian worldview in every area of law. And that’s literally something in their tax filings. And they mean, of course, evangelical Christians. And so that’s been a long growing project.

Mary Harris: So how did they get involved in Mississippi’s 15 week abortion ban in 2018?

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Speaker 2: We had three Mississippi lawmakers introduce just two identical 15 week abortion bans, exact same wording banning abortion at 13 weeks, no exceptions for rape. A few weeks before the lawmakers introduced these 15 week abortion bans, ADF leaders were at this anti-abortion rally, I believe, January 2018, and they announced that they had this this plan to either make Roe irrelevant or to completely reverse it. And they explained that they had drafted these abortion bans that would ban abortions, you know, at 15 weeks. They they’d also drafted some other options that were 20 weeks and maybe one that was something like 12 weeks.

Speaker 2: And they were shopping these bills to lawmakers and states. They didn’t specifically say Mississippi at the time, but they were shopping these bills out and. They explained that with Trump changing the Supreme Court, they believed that they could get one of these abortion bans to the Supreme Court and that they could either overturn or seriously weaken Roe v Wade.

Mary Harris: It’s such a meticulous plan to sort of craft this legislation, have like three different versions and then, you know, okay, the timing’s right. We’ll get it to the Supreme Court.

Speaker 2: Right. And so just a few weeks after they explained this plan, their bills that they wrote are introduced to Mississippi by these lawmakers. And within two months, Governor Phil Bryant was signing the 15 week abortion ban into law. And I believe that same day, the state’s only abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, also known as the Penthouse, filed a lawsuit. Trump had already appointed Gorsuch by the time that the 15 week ban became law. Between then and the time of the case, Trump was able to replace Justice Kennedy with Kavanaugh and replace Justice Ginsburg with Barrett. So a lot of things went right for them. You know, they believed at the time with, you know, even before those two appointments were made, that they had a they had a good chance, at least cutting into Roe.

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Mary Harris: I’m kind of curious, your history as an evangelical when you look at a group like Alliance Defending Freedom. Do you see something that maybe I wouldn’t see as someone who doesn’t have a history as an evangelical?

Speaker 2: Yes. So I think I think what I might see that you wouldn’t is that when they talk about a Christian worldview in every area of law, that’s not they’re not they’re not exaggerating there. What they’re talking about is they’re talking about building the kingdom of God on Earth. They take that in a in a very literal sense. You’re not just building the kingdom by doing nice things for people, but you’re actually building the kingdom by bringing Christian views and Christian ideas, evangelical views, to be precise into into government and into law. And you are making that part of the way that the national government is run. It’s motivated by this idea that their religion and their religious views should dominate. And so when it comes to abortion, you know, it’s non-negotiable to them. And justice was God helping them move that forward as a part of law in this country?

Mary Harris: It’s hard not to listen to you and feel paranoid because it sounds like this group that wants to establish a theocracy is steering policy in this country by the Supreme Court right now.

Speaker 2: That’s that’s that that’s exactly what’s happening. If you look at the Trump administration, he had a lot of people that surrounded him that he would bring into the White House who were what you would call Christian amanuensis.

Mary Harris: Christian Dominion ists. What does that mean?

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Speaker 2: So, Christian, many of us basically believe that Christians should dominate every sphere of society. So they should dominate politics. They should dominate culture in terms of movies, arts. They should dominate all these different spheres of culture. And I don’t think Trump understood that or understands what that term means. But these were people who loved him and were very nice to him and said nice things about him.

Speaker 2: So, of course, you know, he welcomed them with open arms. And, you know, the Christian communities saw Trump as someone through whom they could they could really come in and just, you know, just just get the things they wanted. Even if he wasn’t, you know, their idea of a proper evangelical Christian and those people were just all over the Trump administration, Christian opinion, as were a big part of the January 6th events. You know, so much of what I think that a lot of Democrats and liberals and, you know, and even some moderate Republicans think is just is just normal political disagreements or people who just have different politics than they do. And I think don’t appreciate how strongly these ideas transcend politics.

Mary Harris: They’re existential.

Speaker 2: Right?

Mary Harris: After the break.

Mary Harris: Next steps in Mississippi. The next few days are going to be critical in Mississippi. The attorney general just certified the state’s trigger law earlier this week. That means abortions are supposed to be banned within ten days. But Jackson Women’s Health, the pink house has sued to stop the law from taking effect. In other words, in Mississippi, abortion is still being argued about in court.

Speaker 2: I think what you’re going to see at the at the pink house is you’re just going to you’re going to see the people there continuing to do what they do. They’re going to continue having protesters out there trying to run people off. And they’re going to continue trying to get patients and help as many as they can.

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Mary Harris: Are they planning to remain open even after the trigger law goes into effect to provide other kinds of services?

Speaker 2: I don’t think so. My impression is that that clinic is not going to remain open for any services after after this sort of law goes into effect. But there are you know, there are already groups in Mississippi. There have been for a long time reproductive rights activists who have, you know, work to even teach people how to self-manage their own abortions. Because, you know, you have to remember, Mississippi is a very poor state and we only have one abortion clinic. So if you’re four, 5 hours away from the only clinic, it may not be possible for you to to get there. So that kind of activism and that kind of education on self-managed abortions has been something that’s been going on for a long time, along with, you know, helping people get to clinics or to get through the one clinic in the state.

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

Speaker 2: Right. It does. And, you know, we’ve we’ve talked to two lawmakers who have said that, you know, they would like to come back and pass legislation to try to prevent people from being able to get the pills and try to do something to stop self-managed abortion. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like, though.

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Mary Harris: You know, you’ve spent so much time covering the way anti-abortion activists have focused on one place in Mississippi, which is the pink house, Jackson Women’s Health, the one place people could get an abortion in your state. I wonder where you think that energy goes now, because the energy was so strong like just a few weeks ago. You took this video and posted it online of a woman who is protesting abortion. And she was saying, yeah, like I think even if someone has an ectopic pregnancy or their life is at risk, we just have to leave that to God.

Speaker 2: Even if a woman would die, even if the doctor said, this woman will die without an abortion.

Mary Harris: I have to put it in his hands. He’s the he’s the maker of all. So if he wants that woman to live, if he’s not ready to take her home, he’s going to make it happen. We are at his mercy because what happens to all these people who’ve been so activated?

Speaker 2: You know, that’s a really good question. I actually saw someone tweet on Saturday that abortion, anti-abortion protesters had left the pink house and had gone over to the private event, was happening nearby, and that they saw that as a pretty good symbol of where this could go next. I think you’re going to see a lot of these people move on to fighting against LGBTQ rights. I think you’re going to see some of them, you know, go on to things like fighting plan B. But it’s a really good question about what the people who have been focused almost solely on abortion are going to do. And I would be surprised if if LGBTQ rights wasn’t, you know, one of the first things.

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Mary Harris: You’re a gay man and you’re out.

Speaker 2: Yes. Yes.

Mary Harris: What? I just don’t know how you think about that.

Speaker 2: You know, it’s some. It’s frightening. I’m also married. You know, I remember the morning that we got the notification, a push notification, saying that Justice Kennedy was retiring in 2018. I woke up and I was the first thing I saw. And I looked at my husband and I and I hope I was wrong. But I looked at him and I said, well, there goes our marriage. So, you know, I have a I have a lot of concerns about where things are going to go as a gay man. And, you know, I won’t lie. I don’t think we’re going to have lawmakers in Mississippi that are eager to protect us. They certainly haven’t tried to protect LGBTQ rights in the past, at least not the majority. So it’s some yeah, it’s a it’s a scary place to be. It’s a scary time to be in.

Mary Harris: Ashton Pittman. I’m really, really grateful for your reporting, and I’m so glad we got you on the show. Thank you.

Speaker 2: All right. Thank you so much.

Mary Harris: Ashton Pittman is a senior reporter for the Mississippi Free Press. Before we get out of here, a quick apology from me. In yesterday’s show, I mischaracterized the chief justice’s opinion in last week’s abortion decision. While he did concur with the conservative majority, he wrote a separate opinion in which he made clear he would have preferred to move much more slowly here, not overturning Roe v Wade. But in the end, he lost that war of words to Justice Samuel Alito. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Alena Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Carmel Delshad and Madeline Ducharme. We are getting a ton of help these days from Anna Rubanova and Jared Downing. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. I will be back in this feed bright and early tomorrow morning. I’ll catch you then.