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Archive for Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Mississippi ground zero for national abortion-rights debate

December 28, 2004

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— Outside are protesters, praying or proffering pamphlets with grisly photos. Inside, young women sit quietly in a room furnished with a TV set and a gumball machine, waiting for their appointments at Mississippi's only abortion clinic.

These are busy, but worrisome, days for the Jackson Women's Health Organization, which has added many clients since the other remaining clinic closed last summer. The clinic's staff and supporters know their adversaries will try relentlessly to shut their office down, taking another step toward making legal abortions in the state virtually nonexistent.

For both sides in the national debate over abortion, Mississippi has become Exhibit A: It is widely considered the state with the most thorough arsenal of laws, policies and public pressure aimed at curtailing the procedure. There used to be seven abortion clinics in the state; now it is the most populous of a handful of states with only one.

"Mississippi is the picture of the future," said Susan Hill, a North Carolina-based businesswoman who owns several clinics, including the one in Jackson. "It's the perfect laboratory for any restriction -- there's no way, politically, that it won't sail through the legislature."

Abortions reached a peak in Mississippi in 1991, when 8,814 were reported. The number dropped to 3,605 in 2002, the last year for which figures are available, producing one of the lowest abortion rates in the country.

Many hard-to-measure factors may have contributed to the drop, such as more effective use of birth control or an upsurge of Mississippi woman getting abortions in other states. But activists on both sides believe the strict laws and community pressure have had a significant impact, along with the efforts by anti-abortion groups to publicize the checkered legal backgrounds of some abortion providers.

Though many states have laws restricting abortion, Mississippi has striven to lead the pack. For example, it recently enacted the nation's most sweeping conscience clause, allowing any health care provider to refuse to provide any abortion-related service, including emergency referrals.

Mississippi is one of only two states, along with North Dakota, requiring consent of both parents before a minor can get an abortion. It is one of two states requiring that women seeking abortions be told, in contradiction of National Cancer Institute findings, that abortion might increase their risk of breast cancer.

The legislature has been so diligent that Pat Cartrette, executive director of Pro-Life Mississippi, says her group no longer has a wish list of abortion laws; all its priorities have been enacted.

"If we shine the light on the abortionists and the abortion industry, it will self-destruct, and we're seeing that happen in Mississippi," she said.

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