A cloudy sky and chill in the air didn’t dampen the early turnout of supporters on the lawn at Jackson Women’s Health Clinic, the only public abortion clinic left in the state of Mississippi. Although a small number of reproductive rights advocates had traveled down to the capitol to see the planned demonstration from the States of Refuge tour, a fire and brimstone speech and “funeral” for an alleged aborted fetus named Daniel, they were more than replaced by a number of clinic supporters who had traveled down from Oxford, Mississippi, to support the clinic.
Among the new arrivals were Cristen Hemmins, a small business owner who became actively involved in the battle over Amendment 26 in 2011. Hemmins was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state over putting “Personhood” on the ballot for a vote, and continues to remain an active and vocal supporter for a woman’s reproductive rights, especially after learning to hit the ground running during the No on 26 campaign.
“When [the courts] finally made their decision in September 6th of 2011, we had until November 8th to organize and pretty much educate the entire state about the dangers of Personhood,” Hemmins said. However, Hemmins believes many of the educational tactics could be transferred over into other reproductive topics, especially in opening the door for comprehensive sex education. “We have to start really basic, especially when it comes to birth control,” explained Hemmins. “We had people not understanding birth control and not understanding how Personhood could effect birth control. We had a lot of politicians saying it wouldn’t effect birth control, and if you know how it works, you know that’s not true. Some of it was purposefully misleading, but some of it was just ignorance about basic biological functions.”
Personhood could translate over into the discussion on abortion rights as well. “The main thing we would say is ‘It’s complicated.’ You can’t just say a fertilized egg is a person, and have it not change everything. We told them here are all of the ways it would effect tax code, population numbers, everything. Abortion is the same. There are so many reasons why people need abortions. People think abortion is just because people are lazy and they didn’t use the right birth control. They don’t know of all of the complex medical necessities that can arise and force women to need an abortion for other reasons.”
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As a personal example, Hemmins told her own harrowing story of being abducted, raped, shot twice, and finally escaping after a car-jacking spree turned into a kidnapping. “I didn’t get pregnant, but if I had, I would have had an abortion,” said Hemmins. “After being shot, carrying the pregnancy probably could have killed me. But even if it wouldn’t I never would have wanted to have that baby anyway. I think people like me deserve to have their own choices and decisions about their own body.”
Like many of the Mississippi residents I’ve talked to, Hemmins also has seen religious ideology used as a way to curtail reproductive rights in the state, but considers some lawmakers to be misusing their faith. “The most important parts of Christianity to me are about taking care of the least of us and making sure everyone has equal access to care and food and shelter and water. For politicians who legislate in those areas, I think they are the more true Christians. For those whose one and only goal in life seems to be to shut down the only abortion clinic in the state, I think those are the hypocrites, scoundrels.”
“We are number one in infant mortality. That is hundreds of thousands of babies in this state that die every year, and yet so many politicians in this state seem to put so much priority on fetuses. We are talking about 2000 abortions a year. I’d love for there to be no abortions. The way you do that is to have free access to health care and contraception for women, and to have real comprehensive sex education, not by shutting down the abortion clinic.”
The afternoon became more busy as some protesters returned, including a group of Christian dancers from, a local Jackson dance group. At the clinic, a well-attended press conference provided the staff and supporters with an opportunity to advocate for JWHO to stay open to both local and national audiences, a plea that might help put more pressure on Mississippi legislators who will be contemplating their next move.
Whatever happens next, be it a favorable or unfavorable judge’s ruling, a new bill from the legislature or another round of protests and media coverage, it’s obvious that the next decision won’t be the last. With all eyes on JWHO, both sides will be redoubling their efforts, either to keep the clinic open or shut it down for good.