Roe V Wade

‘It has to be the woman’s choice’: Mississippi women who support abortion access speak out

Polls show more women support banning abortion than keeping it legal in conservative southern state, writes Andrew Buncombe in Canton, Mississippi

<p>Shannon Brewer is strident defender of woman’s right to choose as Director of Jackson’s Women’s Health Organisation</p>

Shannon Brewer is strident defender of woman’s right to choose as Director of Jackson’s Women’s Health Organisation

From her perch at the cash register of a charity store on the edge of the town square,  Kesha Bowens has for decades kept a close eye on life in this historic community of Canton, Mississippi.

And it led her to conclude this: that as the Supreme Court finally decides to strip away Roe v Wade, and with it nationwide access to safe and legal abortion, it should be a woman — not a court, not the legislature, and not the governor of Mississippi — who decides what choices she makes.

“You should have the option to do what you want with your own body,” she told The Independent ahead of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“There is a lot of pressure on parents, not least the cost of raising a child.”

“It’s up to them,” she added.

In the state of Mississippi, which is deeply conservative and where Christian fundamentalism is strong, the 42-year-old may be in a minority.

The struggle to save Mississippi's last abortion clinic

Polls show that as many as 59 per cent of Mississippians believe abortion should be illegal, while 36 per cent think it should be legal in most cases.

That compares to a nationwide figure of 61 per cent who say it should be legal in all or most cases, and 37 per cent who say the opposite.

In recent weeks and months, ever since the Supreme Court agreed to consider Mississippi’s 15-week ban on abortion and after a leaked draft suggested the top court was going to uphold the ban and overturn Roe, activists and others in the state have been trying to rally support for women’s rights.

Since 2004, Mississippi has had only one clinic that provides abortions, the Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, which is known as the “Pink House”, and that would likely relocate to New Mexico if Roe is overturned.

Kesha Bowens says there are many pressures on women

For many years, the face of that clinic has been Shannon Brewer, the medical director of the Pink House.

“People don’t understand that women endure so much,” she told a press conference in Washington DC in December 2021, as the case went before the Supreme Court.

“You’re not going to tell me that I’m not smart enough to make a decision for myself. Nobody’s going to tell me that.”

In May, when Politico reported that a leaked draft by the court was set to both uphold the Mississippi law and overturn Roe, Brewer doubled down in her defence of the importance of the clinic, and her belief that women had to make their own decisions.

She had watched as a stream of women had come to Mississippi after Texas in September 2021 imposed a law banning abortions after just six weeks of pregnancy, one of the most restrictive in the country.

“We’ve watched so much change just because of Texas,” she told NBC News.

She added: “You multiply that times 20, that’s going to be detrimental. You’re going to see an uptick in hospitalisations. You’re going to see an uptick in women doing things that are unsafe.”

In Canton, founded in 1836 and an important site in the civil rights struggle spearheaded by Dr Martin Luther King and others, many women echoed Brewer’s argument that women are best positioned to know whether they can have a child, and that decision had to be the woman’s.

“It has to be up to them,” said 67-year-old Carrie Travis. “There are enough children. They should not be forced to have more.”

Her friend, Marzelle Fisher, agreed.

“If I am paying for everything, it’s up to me,” she said.

She said she has five children of her own and knows what it was like.

“It’s a lot of work.”

Not everyone agreed, however.

Some said a woman ought to have a child, no matter what.

“It will be worth it. It will bring them so much joy,” said 60-year-old Bobbye Summers. “I would support the law [making it illegal]”

Chrystal O’Neill, 32, said she manages a restaurant in Canton — located about 20 miles north of Jackson — named Zoe’s Bar and Grill.

She said the authorities should not overturn Roe, and close the Pink House.

“The women should get to decide. They might not have enough money to raise the child,” she said. “There are a lot of children already in the foster system.”

Marzelle Fisher, (l) and Carrie Travis (r) say abortion should be available to women

Candra Clark, 40, said the federal government ought to help women.

“They should make the economy better and make schools safer,” she said.

A retired jeweler who asked to be identified by the initials SA said she was raised Catholic, and was opposed to abortion personally.

However, she feels the state ought not to be the decision-maker on something so personal.

She said she and her siblings often fought over politics, to the extent that growing up, her mother would admonish them when they returned home for the Christmas holidays, not to discuss such issues if they were enjoying a festive drink or two.

“I think it has to be the woman’s choice, she said.

She added:  “And I thought this was a settled matter.”

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