Mississippi pro-life activists' success in fighting abortion shows not only can some battles be won at the state level-but it can be done with broad bipartisan support
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For the past two years, Mississippi pro-life activists have marked this month's Roe v. Wade anniversary with a haunting monument: 2,000 small, white crosses staked in solemn ranks on the south lawn of the Capitol building in Jackson. Each represents a baby killed by legal abortion. Last year, pro-abortion activists, under cover of darkness, suspended coat hangers from the crosses. Last week, the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration cited an obscure state law and canceled this year's memorial, telling organizers that the crosses were "harming the soil."
It was a rare setback for Magnolia State pro-lifers, who enjoy so much success in working with state government that Mississippi has become for pro-aborts a blueprint for failure.
The number of abortions in the state has plummeted from a high of 8,814 in 1991 to 3,605 in 2002, the most recent year for which data is available. Once home to seven abortion businesses, only a single clinic, the Jackson Women's Health Organization (JWHO), remains. Mississippi is one of only two states with a two-parent consent law for minor girls seeking abortions. And legislators there have passed more laws to protect pregnant women and unborn children than any other state-six in 2004 alone.
"Mississippi is the picture of the future," said Susan Hill, a North Carolina woman who owns several abortion clinics, including the JWHO. "It's the perfect laboratory for any restriction-there's no way, politically, that it won't sail through the legislature."
On one level, that's true, if 2004 is any indication. Last year Mississippi lawmakers passed-and Gov. Haley Barbour signed-a record number of pro-life measures:
• comprehensive conscience protection
• fetal homicide protection
• requirements to report abortion complications
• new clinic regulations
• and a law that prohibits non-ambulatory abortion clinics from killing pre-borns beyond the first trimester.
All the while, Gov. Barbour, former head of the Republican National Party, was hardly surfing a wave of pro-life partisanship. Democrats control both chambers of the Mississippi legislature.
But they are largely Southern Democrats. They may lean on government for economic solutions, but many remain socially conservative. Others-and some pro-abortion Republicans-"would fight us behind the scenes," said Rep. Carmel Wells-Smith. "But when it came to a vote, they voted with us because they didn't want the folks back home to know they had voted against the pro-life movement."
Communities and families hold people accountable, explained Susan Seale, 61, a retired teacher who has counseled women and girls on abortion-clinic sidewalks for 20 years. "Everyone knows their legislator-they all know 'Charlie,' and God help Charlie if he voted anti-life. His grandmother would get him at the next family reunion."
It took 18 months after the 1973 Roe decision before grandmothers had to worry much about abortion. The first clinic didn't open in Mississippi until Dr. Beverly McMillan hung out her shingle in Jackson in the fall of 1974. Meanwhile, citizens opposed to Roe, including Paul Fowler of Reformed Theological Seminary, laid the groundwork for resistance. In 1980, he began organizing Jackson's first right-to-life group. By then, Dr. McMillan had closed shop and repudiated elective abortion, she told a pro-life conference in 1989: "I had my eyes opened up to what God thought about unborn human life."
At about the same time, other small-town Mississippians began to realize that nine black-robed men in Washington, D.C., had opened their state to a new trade. The state's annual abortion count stood at 5,000 but would soon grow.
"In 1981, I woke up to it all," said Mrs. Seale, who with her husband Larry lives in Philadelphia, Miss. "The [pro-life] movement was beginning across the country, but there was this great, loud silence in many churches."
To make some noise, the Seales teamed with a group of obstetricians to launch a right-to-life group in Meridian, Miss. "We came together to rescue babies. We would pray, we would go sit in front of the clinics. The police were called and sometimes would haul us away." Mrs. Seale's job was mostly sidewalk counseling. "We found it fruitful to say to girls, 'We love you and we're not trying to frighten you . . . you deserve better than this.'"
In 1985, the Seales moved to Oklahoma City, where they continued working in the "rescue" wing of the pro-life movement. When they returned to Mississippi in 1996, Mrs. Seale remembers, a group of Christian activists had faithfully plowed the state's conservative soil, starting right-to-life groups and educating congregations and city groups with literature and films. By then, pro-lifers had teamed with conservative legislators to regulate clinics, to require parental consent, informed consent, and a mandatory 24-hour waiting period.
But on the "direct action" front-including sidewalk counseling, which Mrs. Seale regarded as the most immediate way to save individual lives-the movement had lost some steam. Groups like Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) had pressed successfully for the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994-or "FACE"-which banned the blocking of abortion clinic entrances, chilling pro-life demonstrations. FACE laws put "a lot of confusion" into the movement, said Pat Cartrette, executive director of Pro-Life Mississippi (PLM). Pro-lifers weren't sure they should be outside clinics and serious penalties-a $10,000 fine or six months in prison-could be enforced.
But from the lull in clinic activism emerged a new type of activist. "People became involved who weren't involved before," Mrs. Seale remembers. "People who had been uncomfortable with doing rescue said, well maybe I can't do that, but I can lick envelopes, I can pass out literature, I can start a crisis pregnancy center."
And Mississippi's pro-life movement began to grow again. Today, the state's network of 30 crisis pregnancy centers, several medically equipped, provides loving, viable abortion alternatives to women considering abortion. Sidewalk counseling also remains viable: Mrs. Seale leaves her house each Thursday at 5:30 a.m. and drives 100 miles to Jackson. She is among about a dozen regulars who counsel at the state's lone clinic.
In some cases, Mississippi's ex-abortion-clinic operators brought problems on themselves. One clinic closed because the abortionist was caught dumping medical waste in the Natchez Trace. Community pressure, including strategic use of zoning laws, shuttered another. A third closed its doors after clinic workers were caught illegally dispensing drugs. Two clinics closed because the abortionists lost their medical licenses.
Pro-Life Mississippi helped with that. In 1991, the New Woman Medical Center (NWMC) opened on Briarwood Drive in Jackson. Two years later, PLM (formerly Right-to-Life Jackson) moved in next door.
It was a tactical maneuver. From offices tucked between an insurance agency and a CPA, PLM volunteers kept vigilant watch: How many times, for example, did an abortion patient drive up to the clinic in her own car and leave in an ambulance-or in a security guard's private car?
That question led directly to the NWMC's demise. Mrs. Cartrette said volunteers in 2003 observed at least three ambulances leaving the clinic, hospital-bound. PLM already knew of lawsuits involving NWMC abortionist Malachy Dehenre. (They also knew that Dr. Dehenre had been accused of murdering his wife and that his 1987 trial ended in a hung jury.)
"We started watching closely and checking on other lawsuits," Mrs. Cartrette said.
As ambulance runs gave way to patient legal action against Dr. Dehenre, PLM obtained documentation and shared it with the state attorney general, public-health department, and medical licensure boards in Mississippi and Alabama, where the abortionist was licensed to practice. In August 2004, the Mississippi board temporarily suspended Dr. Dehenre's license, forcing NWMC to shut its doors. Four months later, the Alabama Medical Licensure Commission indefinitely suspended Dr. Dehenre's license, declaring him guilty of "gross malpractice." He had perforated the uteruses of at least three women and caused the death of another-an Alabama woman whose husband rushed her to an emergency room, where she perished 18 hours after Dr. Dehenre aborted her baby.
One more abortion clinic down, one to go, Mrs. Cartrette says now. Currently in PLM's sights: the Jackson Women's Health Organization, the last Mississippi clinic standing. It may be vulnerable. Health department inspections conducted in 2002 revealed multiple violations of the state's informed-consent and 24-hour-waiting-period law. The same inspection revealed that clinic workers were using photocopied counseling forms complete with the abortionist's signature.
The health department has never levied fines or penalties against JWHO, but Republican State Rep. Joey Fillingane said the existence of an official steady record of violations since 1999 is proving useful to conservative lawmakers in arguing for tighter abortion controls.
Not every control sails past judicial scrutiny. For example, JWHO has a pending court challenge on one of last year's new laws, the measure that prohibits clinics from performing abortions after the first trimester. That kind of protection for the unborn earned Mississippi an "F" on NARAL's state-by-state report card on "reproductive rights."
The failing grade elicits a chuckle from Rep. Fillingane: "That's one test," he said, "where you want to score at the bottom."
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