Women on the front line of America's abortion war

A law threatening to close Mississippi termination clinics may have consequences for more than one state. David Usborne visits the scene of a bitter argument

The cars begin to draw into the clinic's small parking area shortly before 10. One circles the block twice before stopping, its passenger, a young African-American woman, under a blanket on the back seat. More arrive and soon a small parade of women is treading the short path to the building's glass doors. First though, they must pass the white-haired lady on tiptoes trying to get their attention from the other side of the property's fence.

"Please ladies, your mama gave you life," Janis Lane pleads as they walk by, their heads lowered. "Please give your child life. Please don't kill your innocent baby ma'am. This is not a place for you. There is no such thing as an unwanted child ma'am, we can help you. Your mama gave you life, please afford your child the same courtesy."

Ms Lane, 64, has been spent 30 years in different cities picketing abortion clinics – or "killing centres", as she calls them – trying to stop "victims" from going in, usually in vain. She doesn't apologise for her choices of words. "You know that's all they do in there is kill babies, don't you? It's just a slaughter. They tear them limb from limb."

But this clinic, run by the Jackson Women's Health Organisation in a residential outskirt of Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, is under siege from forces far greater than Ms Lane. Earlier this month, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law to impose new restrictions so burdensome that the clinic faces possible closure. Already signed by Governor Phil Bryant – not a noted liberal on social issues – it goes into effect on 1 July.

Officially, the law is about making the clinic safer, obliging its doctors only to be certified in obstetrics and gynaecology and be formally tied to a local hospital for the admission of patients. But it is clear that more is afoot, when you discover that hospitals will be reluctant to give such privileges to the doctors at the clinic and, more crucially, that it is the only abortion clinic still operating in the entire state.

Mississippi is at the tip of the spear being aimed by a handful of states with Republican-controlled legislatures at the heart of Roe-v-Wade, the landmark US Supreme Court ruling of 1973 that reinstated the constitutional right of a woman to choose to end a pregnancy. There is little doubt what the purpose of the new law is meant to be and Governor Bryant said as much signing it – to make Mississippi the first "abortion free state" since 1973.

The author of the bill, state representative Sam Mims, told The Independent last week that the bill merely aimed to ensure a higher level of medical care at the clinic with the two new requirements. "It addresses the health of the mother. That's all it does," he insisted. Then he gave the truth away. "Well sure, if the clinic closes and the numbers of abortions are reduced in Mississippi, I believe that is a positive result."

That "positive result" could have a other consequences. While there are a scattering of physicians offering abortions in their surgeries, they don't advertise and poorer women don't have access to them. They would be forced to travel to other states – the nearest are in New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana – or find illegal options.

"This talk about the importance of these particular requirements seems to be a smokescreen to deny Mississippi women the choice of whether or not to bear children," says Rob McDuff, a civil rights lawyer who in 1996 represented the pro-choice lobby here to overturn a similar law. The Governor, he said, had made it quite clear that "the purpose of the law is to close down the last clinic in Mississippi".

Mr McDuff, with a practice in Jackson, knows that Mississippi is deeply conservative but despairs nonetheless. "A lot of politicians who are trying to close this clinic would, if their 15-year-old daughter accidentally became pregnant, be the first to go out of state to try and secure abortions for them. There is unfortunate hypocrisy involved." And he sees another inconsistency. "A lot of these politicians complain about big government yet they want the government to have the power to force women to bear children against their will."

The national pro-choice organisation, Naral, last week issued an alert noting that Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, is on the record saying that the final word on abortion rights should be returned to individual states, which in effect means overturning Roe-v-Wade. Mississippi in that circumstance, it said, would hardly be alone in moving to ban abortions without delay. "It would be bad news for women throughout the nation. If Roe-v-Wade were overturned, women could lose the right to legal abortion immediately in 17 states." Naral is tracking 235 bills in state legislatures all tabled with the aim of imposing new restrictions on abortion.

Mississippi offers a parable of the sheer relentlessness of the anti-abortion army. Last November, a ballot was put to voters asserting that a child comes into being at conception. The so-called "personhood" initiative was rejected by 58 per cent of voters, a huge disappointment to the pro-lifers. This new law was their fallback option.

As tireless as anyone in the effort was Terri Herring, a Jackson property developer and national president of the Pro Life America Network (Plan). She helped draft the law for Representative Mims, get it passed and signed. She sees no confusion about its purpose: raising the standard of care at the Jackson clinic and closing it down. "Women don't leave the abortion clinic uninjured," she says. "They leave scarred for the rest of their life; scarred physically; scarred with regret and scarred with shame.

"This could be the beginning of the end of abortion in this state – even in the nation, I think it could." Ms Herring adds that if the pendulum is swinging back towards the pro-life movement – she expects Roe-v-Wade to be gone in 10 years – then it is also because in the age of ultrasound imaging the unborn foetus has been humanised.

Back at the Jackson clinic, its owner, Diane Derzis, who didn't respond to an interview request, has vowed to sue the state, but such litigation could take longer than the clinic could survive. Its closure could deny women in Mississippi a right that the Supreme Court long ago said was due them.

It would mean a change of routine for Janis Lane, who spends a morning a week patrolling its fence. And sometimes it brings her joy. The day we meet a woman actually stops, listens and changes her mind about the abortion. "My role is to intercede for the innocent," Ms Lane says. "And today I'm on cloud nine."

US Constitution: Roe vs Wade

The landmark case of Roe vs Wade legalised abortion across America in 1973. It remains one of the US Supreme Court's most controversial rulings. At the time, abortion had only been legal in restricted circumstances in 20 states.

Under the pseudonym Jane Roe, Norma McCorvey claimed Texas abortion law was unconstitutional. She said she had become pregnant after she was raped, and was forced to give birth because abortions were only permitted if they saved a mother's life. The Texas Attorney General, Henry Wade, defended the state's anti-abortion law, but the court ruled that governments did not have the power to ban the procedure, because a woman's right to an abortion was protected by the freedom of personal choice in family matters as enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.

Ms McCorvey, who later became a pro-life campaigner, is pictured above addressing anti-abortion supporters in Dallas in June 2003.

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