It is mid-morning on a side street in the Fondren area of Jackson. A young woman leaves a bright pink-coloured building and calls someone on her phone. A vehicle pulls up and as she approaches it, a man who had been with some others just outside the car park heads over and calls out loudly that she has “murder in her heart”.
The woman does not respond but the male driver gets out to confront the other man. “How dare you threaten my girl... How dare you interfere in our business. You mind your own damn business.”
The other man shouts back. He says the car driver should think about “the innocent child” and try to save the baby.
Angrily the driver again urges the man to back off. He then jumps back into the car and speeds off.
The altercation is over within a few seconds. In the side street the group of men regroup and wait for the next vehicle to approach or leave the building.
The flamingo pink building, which stands beside a hotel and a strip of single-storey shops and restaurants, is the Jackson Women's Health Organisation. It is the last operational clinic providing abortions in the state of Mississippi.
The clinic is also at the centre of the landmark legal case before the supreme court in Washington over a Mississippi law which seeks to ban abortions after 15 weeks. Many legal experts believe the ruling next summer may lead to the unwinding or dilution of the constitutional right to abortion in America established in the Roe v Wade judgment nearly 50 years ago.
The clinic is located on a main road but the car park opens onto a side street. The anti-abortion activists stand on that street and try to dissuade women from entering the clinic. They cannot cross into the property themselves but women driving or being driven to the clinic must pass them.
Christian nationalism is a thing. This is where it is starting... The legislation is starting here because it is the easiest to get passed
Just inside the threshold of the car park, four women in rainbow-coloured tops stand waiting. They are the clinic escorts who, on a shift basis, seek to shield women entering the premises from the anti-abortion activists on the road outside. All are volunteers. Some are students, others waitresses who stand outside the pink building in their spare time.
Kim Gibson is one of the volunteer escorts, or "defenders" as they are known, and is present at the clinic most days. She is from Mississippi, and has been carrying out this role since February 2017.
She says the primary reason she is there is that patients “do not deserve to be harangued by strangers here. It happens at more clinics than just this one. People have no idea this is going on and the general public generally has no idea what happens outside these clinics.
“This is also where the rubber meets the road with regard to the legislation of religion. This is just the beginning. Christian nationalism is a thing. This is where it is starting... The legislation is starting here because it is the easiest to get passed.”
The volunteer escorts co-ordinate with the operators of the clinics.
“We know when the patient is arriving,” says Gibson. “We greet them with a smile and say ‘Hi, I am with the clinic.’ We find out when the appointment is. We go over some rules of the clinic – no bags and things like that. I am very clear and we let them know who those people outside are; that they cannot come on the property and they [the patients] never have to listen to them or take anything they may be handing out.”
As Gibson speaks to The Irish Times in the clinic car park, a man outside shouts through the fence: “Who will stand up for the pre-born? Those who are being led to the slaughter? Are you here just to get a story? Why don’t you tell the story of the people who are being murdered here today? That is the real story – that this is a crime scene. You just want to be here to interview people who are killing other people.”
A volunteer escort plays loud music to drown him out.
On this morning the man outside is just shouting. Gibson says on other days the group in the street outside have devices to amplify voices and sounds.
“Normally we have a PA speaker out there. A gentleman comes and does a show, as we call it, at 8.30 in the morning; a 1,200-watt speaker is pointed at the clinic and it goes on for half an hour.
“If it is raining, we get bullhorns, sometimes both. And huge five-foot signs of Photoshopped ridiculousness.”
On this day there are three or four men on the road outside. Gibson says many of those who regularly stand outside are travelling to an event elsewhere.
“Normally [there are] all kinds of people out there, men, women and children, yelling, screaming about murdering your baby. You can have up to 30 at one time.
“Sometimes on Saturdays we have had over 100 people out there.”
A young woman is in the car park. She has driven eight hours from Texas, which has introduced very restrictive abortion rules. Another woman had arrived at 6.30 that morning, having driven three hours from the Gulf coast, to make sure she made her appointment.
I am pro the death of murderers. Put murderers to death
Outside the car park a man paces up and down: “Don’t murder your child today, ma’am. You have murder in your heart. You know that to be true. You need to repent because the kingdom of God is at hand.
"Turn to Jesus Christ today. Why are you here to murder children? Why are you here to do this wicked thing? Come onto Jesus Christ. You are not a victim. You are choosing to do this of your free will. Your own will and desire to be selfish.
“I am pro the death of murderers. Put murderers to death.”
In the parlance of the American anti-abortion movement, the people who try to dissuade women from entering the clinic are known as sidewalk counsellors.
Outside the gates a man in a grey jacket wearing an army medical corps baseball hat – not the individual who was shouting – identifies himself as David Lane and says they are there to intercede on behalf of the child – "the little baby who cannot talk".
“It is a little bitty human being. We come here in hope and prayer that people will save their children.”
He says the sidewalk counsellors invite women planning to enter the clinic to go instead to another facility just around the corner where they are provided with an ultrasound and given details about child development and growth. He says there are people who may want to adopt children.
He claims about 85-90 per cent of women who go to the nearby pregnancy advice centre, “after they see an ultrasound, and see the feet and legs moving, will not have an abortion”.
Lane says he has been campaigning on the street against abortion for 39 years all across America. He has been a pastor for 40 years and goes to the gate of the clinic every day he knows it is open.
He says his motivation is saving the unborn and cites the biblical story of the infant Jesus leaping in his mother’s womb.
He says he knows one person who adopted a baby “who was scheduled to die in there” after persuading the mother not to undergo an abortion.
In a coffee shop just down the road from the Pink House a quietly spoken southern doctor tells of how she moved from running the first abortion clinic in Jackson to now being firmly on the anti-abortion side.
Beverly McMillan, whose ancestors came from Co Clare, says that as a young obstetrician/gynaecologist in Chicago in the late 1960s she dealt with women arriving with the consequences of illegal and incomplete abortions.
She says she thought at the time if women were desperate enough to go through this, the answer would be for abortion to be legalised and for them to be treated with dignity.
By 1975 she had moved to Jackson and opened an obstetrics/gynaecology practice.
She says she ran into some people who were organising the first abortion clinic in the state in the aftermath of the Roe ruling and asked if she would help as they were having difficulties recruiting a doctor.
McMillan says that in 1978 she resigned.
“Several things were going on. Part of it was a God thing. But I was trying to run the world’s safest abortion clinic.”
She says one evening following a termination procedure she found an arm “with a beautiful biceps muscle”.
“I have three sons and the youngest was about four and he would go around showing moma his big arm muscles. And it just hit me.”
She adds: “I lost my stomach and I could not do it any more. I was not pro-life at that point. I just could not do it so I resigned. In 1980 I got invited to the first pro-life group in the state and I started doing some pro-life speaking. I guess I had an interesting story as a former abortionist who had left the trade.”
McMillan says that if the supreme court overturns Roe v Wade, the crisis pregnancy centres will be busier, and if it upholds the 15-week law, the situation in Mississippi would still be more liberal than in Ireland.
Back at the Pink House, Gibson says if Roe v Wade is overturned, legislation will kick in locally in Mississippi which will mean the closure of the clinic within hours.
She says if that happens women with crisis pregnancies will either remain pregnant or will “scrape together everything they can to get wherever they can”.
She suggests that women in Mississippi could face having to travel to Illinois or New Mexico for abortions. "New Mexico is at least a two-day drive."
Gibson says the Pink House, which in 2019 dealt with about 3,200 patients, relies on flying doctors in from outside Mississippi to carry out abortions on its premises.
“We cannot have local physicians as these people [protesters] harassed local doctors and stigmatised abortion so much and threatened and intimidated them.”
She adds: “Local physicians do not work here. We fly them in.”
Mississippi already has a number of laws designed to discourage abortions.
Mika Hartman tells of how the state introduced "Hudson's law", named after her young son with Down syndrome, which prohibits abortions to be performed due to race, gender or genetic abnormality except in an emergency.
54,000-63,000 abortions in America annually are obtained at or after 15 weeks
Another Bill in 2014 sought to ban abortions after 20 weeks, which was not challenged. However, when the time limit was reduced to 15 weeks in another Bill, Jackson Women’s Health Organisation quickly sued – leading to the case now before the supreme court.
With the court ruling just months away, Laura Knight, president of the Pro-Life Mississippi organisation, is hoping jurisdiction over abortion services will be returned to individual states.
“We believe the supreme court should uphold our law to protect our citizens. In the past in 1973 in Roe v Wade they completely pushed abortion on the entire nation and took away the rights of the state and individual regions to make laws that were good for their citizens.”
The pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, on the other hand, warns of the consequences of overturning Roe v Wade or the setting of a new limit of 15 weeks for abortion. It estimates that 54,000-63,000 abortions in America annually are obtained at or after 15 weeks.
“If Roe v Wade were overturned or fundamentally weakened, 21 states have laws or constitutional amendments already in place that would make them certain to attempt to ban abortion as quickly as possible,” it says.
“An additional five states have political composition, history and other indicators – such as recent actions to limit access to abortion – that show they are likely to ban abortion as soon as possible without federal protections.”