Hoping for Roe’s reckoning
Pro-lifers set their sights on a single Supreme Court case, but it’s a pair of women—in strategic positions—who got it there
Standing solo on a step outside the U.S. Supreme Court Building, the attorney general of Mississippi is posing for pictures. Lacing her fingers across her waist, planting low-heeled pumps firmly against the marble, Lynn Fitch looks unruffled, even comfortable facing a telephoto lens on a sunny September day. “Y’all just doing side angles?” she asks staff as she corrals a strand of her highlighted bob.
The haircut is a change for Fitch. She managed a longer look through political campaigns as early as high school, when she ran for student body president of Marshall Academy in Holly Springs, Miss., and continuing through two terms as state treasurer. But a different kind of campaign has dominated the 60-year-old’s schedule since May, when the high court granted her petition to review Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a challenge to the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that limits abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. That’s why she’s here in front of the Marble Palace beside a group of smiling pro-life obstetricians. It’s why photo ops with pregnant career women and their preschoolers are slated to follow.
As if cued, a toddler with socked feet and a dusting of Goldfish crumbs reaches a step near Fitch. While he performs stage right, the AG hits talking points for a videographer. Her new hire, a communications strategist who helped Kay Ivey move into the Alabama governor’s mansion, interrupts. “OK, let’s do that one more time in the shade.”
The entourage shifts, and the boy beside Fitch stretches his size 2T limbs. He attempts a backbend on turf that in 1973 welcomed reporters waiting to learn Roe v. Wade’s outcome. It’s just across the street from the Capitol, where Norma McCorvey’s lead counsel, Sarah Weddington, got a telegram announcing she’d won that case. And it’s also where I got a chance to ask Fitch about the opinion piece she co-authored with Democrat Monica Sparks for The Hill. That was just before she leaned into my mic and slid in the understatement of the year—something about hoping to overturn one of the most controversial rulings in Supreme Court history. But Dobbs v. Jackson never would have come this far had it not been for Fitch and the longtime work of Beverly McMillan, an abortionist turned pro-life apologist.
URBAN AREAS IN 1973 may have been quick to sense Roe’s reverberations, but the rumbles were a long time coming to places like Fitch’s hometown in Northeast Mississippi. As a 12-year-old focused on horses and quail hunts, she was more likely to note Walter Cronkite’s announcement of LBJ’s death on Jan. 22 than his report on the historic 7-2 court decision. Abortion issues didn’t really enter her orbit until constitutional law did. By then the academic rarity—Fitch finished both her undergrad and law degree in five years—was settled on the sanctity of life. Still, as her fellow students and professors at the University of Mississippi’s School of Law sparred over Roe, she could perceive changing dynamics. And holes in their arguments.
At 23, Fitch began her first stint in the Mississippi attorney general’s office, becoming one of five women in a pool of 60 state attorneys. She points to a case involving a trio of state prisoners as her high dive into the water. “They wanted to practice tenets of the Rastafari religion, things like smoking marijuana and growing dreadlocks, at Parchman Penitentiary,” Fitch explains. “Transporting them to trial in Greenville would be dangerous, so we looked at other options.” The fledgling attorney ended up spending three weeks trying the case inside their maximum-security facility. It was Mississippi’s first videotaped trial, and Fitch won. The attorney general’s office won the appeal, too.
Fitch, a Methodist, eventually spent time in private practice before her back-to-back terms as treasurer. But it was her pro-life work as a member of the 2016 Republican National Convention platform committee that caught the eye of groups like the Susan B. Anthony list. The nonprofit endorsed Fitch in her 2019 bid for Mississippi attorney general, which brought her 37-year career full circle.
The night those November election results poured in, a reporter at her Embassy Suites celebration site asked Fitch about top priorities for her new office. “Protecting the vulnerable” was No. 2.
For Fitch, vulnerable covers a range of victims, from young girls affected by human trafficking to diabetics affected by insulin prices. The new AG made platforms of both, but she says she was thinking of Mississippi’s blocked abortion law when she answered that reporter two years ago: “We vetted all the cases we knew were percolating, that we were about to inherit, and this one was out there. I wanted to pursue it.”
Her inheritance was the Gestational Age Act, a law aimed at protecting life after 15 weeks’ gestation passed in 2018 by a bipartisan Mississippi legislature. Then-Gov. Phil Bryant enthusiastically signed it but predicted “we’ll probably be sued here in about a half hour.” Turns out Bryant correctly estimated the abilities of the state’s only remaining abortion provider to get its litigious act together. But Jackson Women’s Health Organization three weeks later amended its complaint to include challenges against the state’s abortion laws as a whole, including a telemedicine ban applying to abortion providers and a two-visit requirement before the procedure can be performed. Its decision to load the lawsuit could indicate abortionists understood that the viability issue put them on dangerous ground. Bundled “unconstitutional” laws might prove surer footing.
But while the Gestational Age Act and others like it lost battles in federal district court and at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, a more level playing ground was forming at the Supreme Court. First came Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation in 2017, then Brett Kavanaugh’s in 2018. And Amy Coney Barrett’s two years later.
The cards started stacking up differently in Mississippi, too. Longtime Democrat Attorney General Jim Hood decided to seek greener grass in the gubernatorial ring and was out of the Gestational Age Act’s appeal picture. For hopeful onlookers, that meant the timing of Fitch’s 2020 swearing-in ceremony—the first for a Republican attorney general in Mississippi since Reconstruction—couldn’t have been better. And the shattered pieces of glass ceiling falling around the state’s first-ever woman attorney general? That wasn’t bad press either, especially five months later when she petitioned the Supreme Court to clarify its jurisprudence on the “women’s issue” of abortion.
Solicitor General Scott Stewart, a 2021 appointment to Fitch’s staff, will argue the Supreme Court case on Dec. 1, but it’s Fitch who pushed Dobbs forward and who’s contended with the media. She’s not the first female from Mississippi to turn up the temperature in the fight to protect the unborn.
IT’S MONDAY AFTERNOON when Beverly McMillan pulls up in her black Subaru, and Hurricane Ida is causing trouble on Jackson streets. They’re slick, outlined by tree debris, but McMillan has declined my offer of a postponed interview. The soft-spoken OB-GYN, 79, is ready to talk. Then something beeps. And beeps again.
“Must be a smoke detector,” McMillan guesses, leaving her seat in the conference room to seek the source. She opens one door after another in Pro-Life Mississippi’s donated office space, then returns and shrugs her shoulders. “Guess we’ll have to live with it.”
So we do, and the steady backdrop of beeps, almost like heartbeats, creates an appropriate soundtrack for a timeline like McMillan’s.
She starts in 1969 at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, where she spent six weeks of a six-month rotation in the infected OB ward. Every night she was on call, she’d admit 20-25 women with infected incomplete abortions, mostly the back-alley variety. “At that point I was an agnostic, so I looked at the situation and thought, ‘These women are being treated with no dignity at all.’ I was ready for the medical profession to start taking some social responsibility and offer safe abortions.”
Six years later, McMillan moved with her family to Mississippi. She learned a group of citizens had an abortion facility ready to go, but no physician in the state’s sea of conservatives was willing to perform the procedures. McMillan took the bait: “I wasn’t really happy about coming to Mississippi in the first place, so I just thought if I got run out of town on a rail, I wouldn’t cry.”
Within a year McMillan was crying, but not about that. Her marriage was falling apart. One night when things were at their worst, the abortionist had what she calls “an encounter with Christ.” After that, she began reading the Bible and peppering the only Christian she knew with questions. Still, the patients at McMillan’s regular practice had no idea the hands that delivered their babies were also working a suction machine at the state’s first free-standing abortion center. When one invited the OB to visit her church, McMillan did. That’s when she began having doubts about her work, even though none of the sermons she heard mentioned the A-word.
Three years into her moonlighting, McMillan was standing over a sink, taking a required count of baby body parts, when she had an epiphany. “It was a little boy. You could easily tell sex from 8 weeks. And sitting off by itself was this arm. With this beautiful bicep muscle.”
McMillan pauses. Another beep sounds.
“I had three little boys at home, and my youngest was always trying to keep up with his big brothers. He must have been about 4 at that time, and he would go around showing me his muscle: ‘Look at my muscle. Look at my muscle.’”
A wave of sadness hit her. “I thought, What am I doing? Five minutes ago, this little boy was altogether beautiful.”
BY THE 1980s, McMillan had become a living apologetic. As frontman for Mississippi’s inaugural Right to Life chapter, she made appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, informed churches about circuit-riding abortionists, and lent her sink epiphany story to the C-SPAN archives. McMillan’s practice, shared with two other like-minded physicians, thrived. And when in 1983 Mississippi’s most recognizable pro-life figure married Mississippi’s most controversial pro-life figure, things really got interesting.
Called “the face of the fight against abortion in Jackson,” Roy McMillan was the kind of advocate his wife wasn’t. “I bonded him out of jail many times,” she remembers. “Roy got in people’s face about abortion being murder. I prized my respectability.” When he organized the first Operation Rescue event in their area, she didn’t want to get involved, but words from the book of Micah—“doing justice”—snagged her: “I thought, I talk about justice. Support justice, I think. But this says do it.” The popular physician took part in the sit-in and suffered the consequences. She says getting arrested and having her picture on the front page of the paper wasn’t fun. Neither was facing Planned Parenthood’s $11 million lawsuit against her firebrand husband and seven others years later.
Still, the Catholic couple did important grassroots work. Young women facing crisis pregnancies knew they’d be welcomed at Beverly’s office. Many even took up residency in the McMillan home. But the doctor had political influence too.
McMillan had in 1984 just delivered Terri Herring’s third child, a son, when Roy asked to take a picture of the newborn for the cover of a flagship pro-life newspaper. Herring agreed, but she admits she was clueless about abortion laws. She asked her OB to fill her in. When Beverly McMillan pulled out some photos of aborted babies, Herring’s life changed.
“From that moment on, I’ve been involved in pro-life work,” the now-president of Choose Life Mississippi explains. “Beverly McMillan was the mother of the movement. She led me to get involved.”
That investment compounded daily. When Herring learned that more than a decade had passed since Roe, and Mississippi technically had no laws regulating abortion, she turned a group of six stay-at-home moms into lobbyists, joking that they went from the kitchen sink to the state Capitol. The moms introduced Mississippi’s first abortion law, a parental consent requirement. Herring says legislation became the education for her state, a place where people thought Roe was a done deal and the church seemed to be asleep: “Parents had no idea their daughters could get an abortion without them knowing. Students couldn’t get an aspirin at school, but they could get an abortion.”
The consent law passed in 1986. For Herring, it was the first of many lobbying efforts that eventually led to “closed” signs on six abortion facilities and a 70 percent drop in abortions in her state. She credits McMillan: “It was a domino effect. We needed someone to issue a quiet clarion call, to be a cultural influence.” McMillan also provided the counterbalance to their strongest opposition: the medical community, which often opposed penalties against abortionists. “Beverly was our ace in the hole, a doctor who could speak about abortion from experience and debunk their arguments.”
Now retired and widowed, McMillan has time to contemplate her years as president of Pro-Life Mississippi and how they mesh with the Dobbs case. She believes a failed 2015 personhood amendment is a more recent contribution: “You had to think about conception and when are we persons? Christian doctors involved in IVF seemed to be confronting it for the first time, rethinking something they’d been doing that they thought was so good. All those abandoned embryos were wrapped up in that amendment. But I think that was just too much for even Mississippi to deal with then.”
McMillan also has time to contemplate Lynn Fitch. They share some things in common, after all. They’re both professionals. Both spent years as single moms raising three children apiece. But Fitch never faced arrest for crossing a line outside an abortion facility. Even so, McMillan nods with respect. “Lynn Fitch could have taken an easier path by asking the court to deal with our ban, just our ban. Instead, she went for the jugular. She questioned the whole construct of Roe v. Wade.”
WHEN IN JULY AMICUS BRIEFS supporting Dobbs v. Jackson started rolling in, filings from 240 women scholars, professionals, and pro-life feminist organizations were among them. Their recurring themes sounded a lot like messaging coming out of the Mississippi AG’s office. Things have changed since 1973. Women don’t need abortion to participate equally in civil society. The stigma of single parenting has diminished. Maternity leave is routine.
Maybe that’s why the phrase “empowering women” figures prominently in Lynn Fitch’s vocabulary. Her two deputy attorneys general are females. Her chief of staff is a female. Half of her office’s remaining division heads are female. Although Fitch doesn’t speak publicly about her divorce, she’s increasingly vocal about raising her children as a single mother.
But the new narrative may come as a surprise to Christians watching Dobbs from a distance. Like McMillan, many have spent decades in pro-life trenches waiting for Roe to be challenged, and a Scripture-based belief that the unborn are image bearers is what secured their allegiance, not a “things have changed since ’73” realization.
Sarah Parshall Perry, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, agrees the landscape looks different these days, but she thinks advancements for women account for only part of it. “There are so many crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), so many opportunities through charitable organizations to provide a home for children. It really is a different environment.”
That’s true in Mississippi, with more than 30 CPCs scattered within its borders.
As one Mississippi CPC director, Cecile Roberts, told me: “When a client comes to me and she’s considering abortion, I don’t tell her that she can have a baby and still have it all. I talk to her about God. I want her to realize there’s a purpose for her child.”
Fitch shares that belief, too. But she’s a weathered politician who, not so unlike Daniel, is attempting to promote life in Babylon. That may account for the prism of perspectives she’s pitched to news outlets like USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, and others where Fitch explained the problem of tethering changing viability standards to abortion policies. In none did Fitch include Jeremiah’s often cited “before I formed you” lines. That may chafe some sidewalk counselors, but comments posted in The New York Times—thousands of them—indicate Biblical references wouldn’t have been welcome, anyway.
Passing the crucible of public opinion may not be possible for Mississippi’s case, but a majority decision at the Supreme Court is. One Times reader wrote his fear of that happening and his fear for our “secular Democracy.” Pro-lifers like Fitch and McMillan find themselves daring to hope.
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