As you read this piece about abortion in Mississippi thirty-two years after the right to have an abortion was affirmed by the Supreme Court, the government of Mississippi is marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in another way. Governor Haley Barbour has issued an official proclamation declaring the seven days leading up to the anniversary "a week of prayer regarding the sanctity of human life." Barbour also authorized the placement of tiny white crosses on the lawn of the state Capitol "in memory of the unborn children who die each day in America," according to the decree. The crosses have been planted for the past three years, though this year Barbour will be at President Bush's inauguration during the official anniversary event, and the display was moved to a nearby churchyard. Barbour is a Republican, but it should be noted that the tradition of transforming the Capitol lawn into a symbolic mini-graveyard was begun by the previous governor of Mississippi, who was a Democrat.
With eight of nine US Supreme Court Justices over 65 and one seriously ill with cancer, much of the country is understandably focused on the possibility that their soon-to-be-appointed replacements will overturn the decision upholding the right to abortion. But in Mississippi, in many ways, Roe has already fallen. Abortion is legal here, of course, as it must be throughout the country while the landmark ruling stands. Yet, for many women, the ability to terminate a pregnancy is out of reach, buried under state laws that make the process unnecessarily difficult, discouraged by a sense of shame enforced by practically every public authority, and inaccessible for many who lack money to pay for it.
How Mississippi all but outlawed abortion is a story people on both sides of the abortion debate are still struggling to understand. Few would expect this famously conservative Southern state to be prochoice. And Texas, Louisiana and a few other states have been competing for the dubious distinction of being the worst place to be if you want or need to end a pregnancy. But Mississippi has gone further in its hostility to abortion even than other Bible Belt states. A small, mostly rural population and the absence of local prochoice organizations have helped turn Mississippi into the perfect laboratory for antiabortion strategists.
Virtually every possible restriction on the procedure exists here, from a mandatory twenty-four-hour waiting period after counseling, to a requirement that minors obtain the consent of both parents to have an abortion, to thirty-five pages of regulations dealing with such physical characteristics as the width of a clinic's hallways and the size of its parking lot. The mounting restrictions (Mississippi passed six antiabortion laws last year alone) have delighted antiabortion activists all over the country, who have hailed--and copied--the state's innovations.
Meanwhile, prochoice activists see Mississippi as a glimpse of what might become the norm in a possible post-Roe future. "It's the canary dying in the mine," says Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. If the Supreme Court were to reverse the decision, abortion would likely become illegal in thirty states, including Mississippi, according to a 2004 report by the center. Across what can seem like a great divide, the twenty other states have laws, constitutions or court decisions that would protect the basic right to abortion even if Roe falls. While some of these, including New York and Washington State, which both decriminalized abortion before 1973, will likely remain strongly prochoice, others may pass restrictive laws like Mississippi's.
Even while Roe stands, Mississippi is a cautionary tale for the rest of the country. "It's what can happen if the constant strategy of chipping away at Roe is not met with sufficient push-back from the prochoice movement," says Northrup. So in order to preserve the right to abortion, prochoice Americans would do well to learn how Mississippi all but eliminated it.