[Marxism] Abortion under siege in Mississippi
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 1 07:12:11 MDT 2006
(Michelle Goldberg is the reporter who was featured in "August in the
Empire State" that I reviewed the other day.)
Abortion under siege in Mississippi
Preaching that abortion is as evil as Islam, Nazism and homosexuality,
dozens of activists have descended on Jackson, determined to shut down the
state's last abortion clinic.
By Michelle Goldberg
Aug. 01, 2006 | Flip Benham was going to burn a Koran at Mississippi's
state Capitol on July 18 but he couldn't get a fire permit. The blaze was
to be the culmination of an antiabortion rally that Benham, director of
Operation Save America, billed as an "ecclesiastical court." His attack on
Islam might seem like a non sequitur, but to Benham, it made perfect sense.
"Islam is the same thing as abortion and homosexuality," he said. "It's the
black-colored glove covering the same fist, which is the fist of the
devil." Benham had T-shirts made up, black with white lettering,
proclaiming, "Homosexuality Is Sin! Islam Is a Lie! Abortion Is Murder!
Some Issues Are Just Black and White!"
About 100 people gathered for the rally in the vicious heat, many of them,
from huge-bellied men to toddlers, wearing Benham's T-shirts. It was three
days into Operation Save America's weeklong siege of the Jackson Women's
Health Organization, the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. From July 15
to July 22, protesters -- sometimes a few dozen, sometimes more than 100 --
surrounded the clinic, an off-white stucco building ringed by a metal gate,
hoisting photos of aborted fetuses blown up to the size of 4-year-olds. The
clinic brought in McCoy Faulkner, a security expert who specializes in
violence against abortion providers. It changed its hours to deal with the
onslaught, scheduling some appointments before 6 a.m. so patients could
dodge the horde of demonstrators who converged a few hours later. Still,
even at dawn, women had to brave a gantlet of shouting people.
At the Capitol, demonstrators formed two makeshift walls with huge signs
that juxtaposed photos of aborted fetuses with lynching victims and corpses
piled up at Nazi death camps. Behind them rose a statue -- a monument
honoring Confederate women -- of garlanded ladies succoring a fallen man.
Organizers set up speakers and played the kind of celestial music that
signifies heaven in Hollywood movies, lending the proceedings a kitschy
intensity. Standing before the assembly, Benham, a sturdy Texan with
sun-cured skin, short brown hair, and the hearty manner of a high school
football coach, cried out, "What is happening in Jackson today is exactly
what happened in Nazi Germany!"
To Benham, waiting for a new Supreme Court justice to overturn Roe v. Wade
is like being a German who heard and saw nothing. Impatient for change, he
and his followers are determined to make Roe functionally irrelevant -- the
right to an abortion doesn't mean much if women can't exercise it. In their
struggle, they've made the Jackson Women's Health Organization their ground
zero. Theyre convinced that if they can close down the last abortion
clinic in the state, where abortion rights already hang by a political
thread, their crusade will gain momentum across the country. On July 30,
another antiabortion group, Oh Saratoga, based in upstate New York,
commenced its own seven days of protests in Jackson. Its Web site promises
to bring a "summer tsunami against that states final 'abortuary.'"
"We're not waiting for the president, we're not waiting for the Congress,
we're not waiting for the Supreme Court," Benham told me a few days before
the rally. "This issue can't be won from the top down." At Benham's side
for much of the week was Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, who
since 1995 has been an evangelical antiabortion activist. "It would really
please the Lord God if Mississippi becomes the first abortion-free state,"
she said, as she stood in front of the Jackson Women's Health Organization
one scorched morning. "Then all he'd have to worry about are the other 49."
She happily reeled off the names of states where abortion bans have been
introduced or passed: "South Dakota, Ohio, Louisiana
Benham's "ecclesiastical court," a ritualized indictment of the Supreme
Court for breaching God's law, dramatized his contempt for the current
legal regime. Before him sat a small grill like the kind football fans use
at tailgate parties; he asked the two dozen or so children in attendance to
gather around it.
One by one, as Elysian hymns poured from the speakers, Benham produced the
texts of objectionable Supreme Court decisions. He started with 1947's
Everson v. Board of Education, the case where Justice Hugo Black wrote, "In
the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law
was intended to erect a wall of separation between Church and State." He
went on to decisions outlawing school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading.
As each decision was introduced, a man sounded a shofar. Benham shouted
denunciations and asked the kids to rip up the pages and throw them onto
the grill. Someone pounded a bass drum.
"There's coming a time when it might cost you your life to stand up for
King Jesus," Benham told the children. "It is our prayer that if you go
down, you go down standing up in the name of Jesus."
When Benham got to Roe v. Wade, he summoned McCorvey, a short woman with
curly brown hair, dressed in a violet T-shirt and shorts. She and Benham go
way back. He opened Operation Rescue's national headquarters next to the
abortion clinic where she worked; he gradually won her over during her
smoking breaks. In 1995, Benham baptized her in a backyard swimming pool in
Dallas. At the Capitol, he handed her the pages of the decision bearing her
alias and she ripped it up, telling the crowd, "You're so beautiful. I'm so
sorry for what I did."
"We love you, Miss Norma," Benham said. He continued with his excoriations,
condemning 1993's Planned Parenthood v. Casey and 2003's Lawrence v. Texas,
which struck down the state's anti-sodomy law. "Lawrence versus Texas did
away with all 4,000 years of historical law," he said. "It does away with
everything the Bible says!"
Benham then produced a rainbow gay flag. As he lamented the way homosexuals
"stole the colors of the rainbow," several men in attendance grabbed pieces
of it and ripped it to shreds. Then he held up a paperback copy of the
Koran and said, "We have one more issue that we must deal with. With this
issue we have three choices. We can either kill them, be killed by them, or
we can convert them to Christ." Several cheers went up in the crowd, and
then, after several more minutes of preaching, Benham began to tear the
Koran apart. He offered pieces of the book to the men in the crowd -- hands
seemed to reach out from all directions to take them -- and they destroyed
the pages further, throwing the scraps onto the grill.
Rows of cops were standing behind him, ready to move the moment they saw an
illegal spark. Evidently, Benham didn't want to go to jail that day, so he
waited until the evening, when the group held its regular meeting at the
Making Jesus Real Church in the nearby town of Pearl. The Operation Save
America members put the grill in the church parking lot. McCorvey struck
the match that burned the shredded symbols.
Operation Save America can seem more like a farce than a threat. Yet for
abortion-rights advocates, it's both. On the surface, Benham's Mississippi
sojourn didn't look victorious. There were, at most, a few hundred
demonstrators in Jackson. The daily protests at the Jackson Women's Health
Organization created a constant, low-level state of emergency among the
clinic's staff, intimidated many of the patients, and added to the anxiety
that plagues doctors living with the omnipresent threat of violence. But it
was a far cry from the 1990s, when the group, then known as Operation
Rescue, brought tens of thousands of protesters to cities like Wichita and
Buffalo, where they tried, and sometimes succeeded, in physically shutting
Lately, though, the tension has been rising. The same day as Benham's rally
at the Capitol, protesters descended on the block of Dr. Joseph Booker, a
gynecologist at the Jackson Women's Health Organization, for the first time
in 10 years. They went door to door, ringing bells and telling people their
neighbor was a baby killer. A few weeks before, protesters led by Benham
showed up at the Raleigh, N.C., home of Susan Hill, owner of the Jackson
Women's Health Organization. It was the first time that had ever happened.
Soon Hill started receiving death threats. "We worry that they're being
emboldened," Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation
and a longtime friend of Hill's, said of militant antiabortion activists.
"There does seem to be an increase in activity and harassment."
Betty Thompson, former director of the Jackson Women's Health Organization,
noted that someone has rented an apartment across the street from the
clinic as a base for protesters. "I think they feel they have the power,"
she said. "All eyes are on Mississippi now."
Thompson retired from the clinic in 2004 due to health problems; these
days, she's a consultant. She's a warm, 58-year-old black woman whose work
has been inspired by the misery she endured when she got pregnant as a
16-year-old high school student in a small Mississippi town. She had the
baby and today adores her grown son. But she still wishes she'd had a
choice. "It was a real tough time, a real tough time," she said, recalling
the anger of her family and the ostracism of her peers. "It's too hard on
the woman, too, too hard. So you're either on the side of the fetus or the
side of the woman."
A decade ago, there were six clinics in Mississippi, but the combination of
constant harassment and onerous state regulations led one after another to
shut down; since 2004, Jackson Women's Health Organization has been alone.
"They're using the tactics of a war of attrition," Smeal said. "What you do
is you [attack] in the hinterlands, don't hit them in their strong point
until you become so strong that you can penetrate it. So they target, and
then they move on. Close that clinic, move to the next. It's a classic
The Jackson Women's Health Organization won't fall easily. Hill and Booker
are every bit as committed as Benham and his crew are. Hill owns five
clinics throughout the country and is used to being on constant alert. Over
the years, her facilities have been subjected to 17 arsons or fire
bombings, as well as butyric acid attacks and anthrax threats. One of the
doctors who worked for her, David Gunn, was murdered. "Fortunately we've
been safer in the last few years for whatever reasons," Hill said. "Thank
God there haven't been the shootings. But there is a feeling that things
are ramping up. The protesters are more vocal -- they're screaming, not
just protesting, more like they were in the late '80s."
By and large, the people who've shown up in Jackson have not been as
belligerent as their rhetoric. Historically, though, the doctors who've
been targeted by protests have been the ones most likely to be assaulted or
killed by extremists. "All we can say is, when protests at a clinic go up,
that's when there tends to be a shooting," Smeal said. Many of the abortion
providers who've been shot, including George Tiller in Wichita, Kan., John
Britton in Pensacola, Fla., and Barnett Slepian in Buffalo, N.Y., had been
subjects of repeated demonstrations and threats. Their names were put on
hit lists, and wanted posters and information about them circulated
throughout the violent wing of the antiabortion movement.
Booker is one of the gynecologists who've been singled out by militant
antiabortion forces. He's been stalked repeatedly, and during the 1990s, he
was put under the protection of federal marshals. "We were very fearful he
was going to be killed," Smeal said.
Booker had a police escort during the recent protests, but if he's afraid,
he won't admit it. A 62-year-old black man with a trim, white-streaked
mustache and goatee, and a stud in his left ear, Booker said the harassment
has been increasing, but he dismissed the protesters as "more bark than
bite. If you don't dont get intimidated, they get frustrated and don't
show up as much." Raised on the poor outskirts of Pittsburgh and educated
in San Francisco, Booker described himself as "a Yankee, pro-choice,
outspoken and black. And that's a bad combination in Mississippi." He
added, "You don't mess with a ghetto person and think they're going to back
The doctor said he has a "deep passion in my heart" for a woman's right to
chose. He was in medical school in 1973 and recalled doing a rotation at
the San Francisco General emergency room. "I saw a lady come through who
had an illegal abortion," he said. "And when you see a lady come through
who is hemorrhaging, who has a fever of 104 or 105, has severe peritonitis
because she had her uterus punctured, that's a sight you don't forget."
Nothing the protesters can do, he insisted, will close down the Jackson
Women's Health Organization. "There's too much spirit by me, and too much
spirit by Susan Hill. We are both fighters, we've both been through the
wars. They thought we'd be closed down this week because we're afraid of
them, but they don't know me and they don't know Susan."
The protests are just one side of the vise in which the Jackson Women's
Health Organization is caught. It's also being squeezed by an expanding
array of antiabortion legislation that's made Mississippi perhaps the most
difficult state in America to terminate a pregnancy. Even as the clinic
hangs on, Mississippi offers the country's clearest view of the religious
right's social agenda in action. It's a case study of the way conservatives
are making Roe irrelevant and a harbinger of an America without choice.
The state government recently came close to passing a sweeping abortion
ban, and many expect it will do so in the next legislative session.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour -- who declared an official "a week of prayer
regarding the sanctity of human life" before the anniversary of Roe v. Wade
-- has said he intends to sign it. Even without the ban, the state leads
the nation in antiabortion legislation. It's one of only two states in
America where teenagers seeking abortions need the consent of both parents,
and one of only two where abortion providers are required to give patients
medically inaccurate information linking abortion to breast cancer.
Abortion facilities must comply with 35 pages of regulations, including
vague directives like one mandating that clinics be located in an
The same strategy at work in Mississippi is being used all across the
country. According to the National Abortion Federation, 500 state-level
antiabortion bills were introduced last year, and 26 were signed into law.
The number of abortion providers dropped 11 percent between 1996 and 2000,
and almost 90 percent of U.S. counties lack abortion services. At the
national level, Republicans are working to strengthen these restrictions;
last week, the Senate passed a bill making it a crime to take a minor
across state lines to evade parental consent laws.
Not everyone in Mississippi is antiabortion, of course, but the movement's
ideology tends to pervade public life. One morning, a white taxi that said
"Choose Life" on its side pulled into the parking lot of the Jackson
Women's Health Organization. Out jumped one of the clinic's surgical
technicians. She had been driven to work by her boyfriend, a cab driver,
whose boss, the owner of Veterans Taxi, had emblazoned the antiabortion
message on every car in his fleet. Many people drive cars with special
state license plates that say "Choose Life"; Mississippi gives much of the
proceeds from the plates to Christian crisis pregnancy centers.
More than two dozen such centers operate in the state, serving as the most
prominent dispensers of reproductive health advice. They look very much
like ordinary women's health clinics and offer free pregnancy tests and
ultrasounds, but they exist primarily to dissuade women from having
abortions. When Booker ran a clinic in Gulfport, Miss., a crisis pregnancy
center set up right next door. It imitated his sign, and a lot of his
patients ended up wandering in there by accident, only to be confused when
people who looked like nurses tried to talk them out of aborting.
Crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs, have a record of misleading women.
During a recent investigation into CPCs, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., had
staffers call 25 centers posing as pregnant 17-year-olds. They reached 23
of them, and of those 23, 20 provided false or misleading information about
abortion. "Often these federally funded centers grossly misrepresented the
medical risks of abortion, telling the callers that having an abortion
could increase the risk of breast cancer, result in sterility, and lead to
suicide and 'post-abortion stress disorder,'" Waxman wrote in a report
released this month.
None of those claims is true. The National Cancer Institute concluded in
2002 that "induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast
cancer risk." Similarly, medical consensus holds that first-trimester
abortions don't impair fertility. The American Psychological Association
reports: "The best studies available on psychological responses to unwanted
pregnancy terminated by abortion in the United States suggest that severe
negative reactions are rare, and they parallel those following other normal
Like other crisis pregnancy centers nationwide, those in Mississippi tell
their clients that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer,
infertility and a host of psychiatric disorders. Although the women who
come to them are virtually all both sexually active and unprepared for
motherhood, they are counseled against contraception, told that abstinence
is the only answer for the unwed.
At Jackson's Center for Pregnancy Choices, which gets roughly $20,000 a
year in payments from the state's sale of Choose Life plates, I picked up a
pamphlet about condoms. It warns that "using condoms is like playing
Russian roulette ... In chamber one you have a condom that breaks and you
get syphilis, in chamber two, you have an STD that condoms don't protect
against at all, in chamber three you have a routinely fatal disease, in
chamber four you have a new STD that hasn't even been studied."
According to Barbara Beavers, the pretty, honey-voiced mother of four who
runs the Center for Pregnancy Choices, as many as 40 percent of the
pregnancy tests the center administer come back negative. Some of the women
who take them live with their boyfriends, making a commitment to abstinence
unlikely. But Beavers is unapologetic about her opposition to birth
control, in part because she thinks a woman whose contraception fails might
feel more entitled to an abortion. "They think, it wasn't their fault
anyhow, so let's just go ahead and kill it," she said. The best birth
control, she added, "is self-control."
A girl in Mississippi would have to do some digging to find other sources
of information about contraception. When it comes to sex education, the
schools teach either abstinence or nothing at all. "You would be surprised
what they don't understand about their own bodies," Thompson, the former
director of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, said about the
clinic's patients. "It still amazes me what they don't know."
Even when girls and women manage to learn about birth control, getting it
isn't always easy. Besides private physicians, the only places that provide
birth control prescriptions are the Jackson Women's Health Organization and
the offices of the State Department of Health. Once a woman gets a
prescription, there's no guarantee she'll be able to fill it. Mississippi
is one of eight states with "conscience clause" laws that protect the jobs
of pharmacists who refuse to dispense contraceptives. It's especially hard
to obtain emergency contraception. According to a survey by the Feminist
Majority Foundation, of 25 pharmacies in Jackson, only two stock EC. Booker
said he's written several EC prescriptions, only to find his patients
unable to fill them.
There's no indication that Mississippi's policies have led to increased
chastity. There is, however, plenty of evidence that both women and their
children are suffering. Mississippi has the third-highest teen pregnancy
rate in the country and the highest teenage birth rate. It is tied with
Louisiana for America's worst infant morality rate. According to the
National Center for Children in Poverty, more than half of the state's
children under 6 years old live in destitution.
Despite all the hurdles placed in their way, many women in the state remain
determined to end their unwanted pregnancies. They come from as far as
three and a half hours away to reach the Jackson Women's Health
Organization. Often they have to make the trip twice -- or spend the night
in their cars -- because Mississippi mandates a 24-hour waiting period
between a woman's initial consultation and her abortion. Even when
Operation Save America isn't in town, a handful of protesters maintain a
The most faithful is C. Roy McMillan, who sees protesting abortion as his
full-time job and says he's been arrested 65 times. His wife, a former
abortion provider who, after being born again, became a gynecologist who
refuses to prescribe contraceptives, supports him financially. McMillan is
one of 34 signatories to a 1998 statement that calls the murder of doctors
who perform abortions "justifiable ... for the purpose of defending the
lives of unborn children." He describes the late Paul Hill -- the murderer
of gynecologist Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, retired Air Force Lt.
Col. James Herman Barrett -- as a friend.
By Mississippi law, women seeking abortions must sign informed consent
forms, certifying that they've been told about the risks of abortion,
including "danger to subsequent pregnancies, breast cancer, and
infertility." Thus doctors in Mississippi are legally required to mislead
their patients. At least, that seems to be the intention. Booker gets
around it by taking the wording of the law literally. When patients come in
for a consultation, he tells them about the links between abortion, breast
cancer and infertility, explaining they are nonexistent.
For Thompson, the fact that women will leap through so many hoops to
terminate their pregnancies shows that abortion will never disappear, no
matter how hard the government makes it. "I've found that if a woman wants
an abortion, she'll do whatever it takes," she said.
Despite the determination of everyone at the clinic, both the size and
length of the protests were clearly interfering with normal operations.
Thompson suspects the demonstrators kept some women away -- at least
temporarily. One day, in the heat of Operation Save America's campaign, she
sighed and said, "Those people who can wait, I'm sure are waiting. The
clinic is probably going to have a lot of work next week."
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