An unmistakable undercurrent of violence runs through the antiabortion movement in Mississippi. Roy McMillan, for instance, who can be found most afternoons in a lawn chair across from the clinic in Jackson, has been arrested sixty-two times in his twenty-five-year career as an activist. He has threatened clinic staff, and put his fingers in the shape of a gun and "shot" them, earning himself a federal injunction that requires him to remain at least twenty-five feet from the building. McMillan also signed a declaration calling the murder of abortion providers justifiable and was a longtime friend of Paul Hill, the antiabortion activist who was executed for murdering Florida abortion provider Dr. Bayard Britton and his clinic escort, 74-year-old Jim Barrett.
McMillan, who was dressed in a Santa outfit when I met him on a 50-degree day in December ("This is a time for peace on earth, not war in the womb," he explained), seems happy to play the part of extremist. He shouts "For shame!" at women heading toward the clinic, carries a plastic baby doll with him and hasn't held a job in nineteen years. Yet, nutty and dangerous as he may seem to many, McMillan enjoys a certain legitimacy in Jackson. He is married to a prominent local physician, who after providing the first abortions in the state had a religious conversion (and married McMillan) and is now one of several Ob-Gyns in the area who refuse to prescribe birth control. And though McMillan says he would like the state to move more quickly to become the first to be "abortion-free," he says he feels his state government is on his side.
This is not McMillan's imagination. The Governor has made his antiabortion passions perfectly clear. The local circuit courts have repeatedly shown themselves to be negatively inclined toward abortion. And I was unable to find any Mississippi legislators who openly identify themselves as prochoice. "Either you say you're prolife or you don't say anything," explains Erik Fleming. A Democratic state representative who was described to me as the most likely state legislator to call himself prochoice, Fleming bristled at the term. "I don't like to be put into that label thing, because when you put a moniker saying you're against life, that's pretty strong," says Fleming, who supports limiting abortion and has sponsored legislation that would ban abortions after the first trimester of pregnancy.
The equivocation of folks like Fleming, who works as an abstinence educator when the legislature is not in session, is still better than the outright terror of the issue some other Mississippi politicians display. In the November election for state lieutenant governor, the incumbent, Republican Amy Tuck, accused the Democratic candidate, state Senator Barbara Blackmon, of being prochoice. Blackmon, who does support abortion rights, might have said, "One in three American women has an abortion by age 45. I support keeping it safe and legal for them." Or maybe even simply, "Yes, I'm prochoice. Next question?" Instead, she responded by accusing Tuck of having had an abortion herself, and challenged her to sign an affidavit swearing she hadn't. Tuck signed the affidavit and won the election.
The fear of being associated with the issue extends beyond government officials. Even Mississippians who are outraged about how their state has handled abortion were afraid to be named in an article about it. ("I'm a Catholic, my priest would kill me," is how one explained it.) And the issue is "too divisive" for the Mississippi Coalition on Women to address, according to one of the group's founders. Meanwhile, the few willing to work openly on the issue are overwhelmed. Susan Hill, who runs clinics in Wisconsin, Indiana, Delaware, Georgia and North Carolina, in addition to Mississippi, says she saves her energy for the big fights. Currently she's leading the battle against a renewed push to ban abortions after the first trimester of pregnancy, which ends around the twelfth week. Already, the state limit is sixteen weeks, though Roe allows abortions until the point of fetal viability, at least twenty weeks into pregnancy. Sixteen weeks is a significant cutoff, since amniocentesis and other tests for fetal abnormalities are performed at that point. As a result, women cannot get abortions in the state because of problems discovered through these tests.
Operating in triage mode has meant that no one in Mississippi has found the time to sue over highly questionable state policies. So, by law, clinic doctors must give the scientifically unfounded warning that having an abortion might increase the risk of breast cancer. The state issues "Choose Life" license plates despite the fact that the practice has been found unconstitutional in other states. And the governor's proclamation, which declares that "the time has come" to overturn Roe v. Wade in addition to authorizing the display of the crosses, has gone unchallenged.
Mississippi, the proclamation tells you, lives by a different law from the rest of the land--for now, anyway. And even while they challenge it simply by running Mississippi's last remaining abortion facility, Susan Hill and Betty Thompson have been forced to accept that reality. In his lawn chair outside the clinic, Roy McMillan rejoices in it. And the women of Mississippi, who sleep in their cars, shuttle out of state and bear unwanted children in poverty, live it.