The current fight for abortion rights is more than a domestic battle over state’s rights and individual decision making. It is a battle that fits within the broader context of self-determination and human rights. Eroding or outright eliminating the protections stemming from the landmark cases Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey will have tragic consequences for women and pregnant people around the country, as the protected privacy interest in personal decision-making extends beyond abortion.
Recent reports have documented the disproportionate impact of severe abortion restrictions on people of color and low-income women and pregnant people. According to Planned Parenthood’s “Red Alert” report, 90 abortion restrictions were passed nationwide in 2021, more than any single year since Roe was passed. Written in partnership with In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, a collective of eight Black women-led reproductive justice organizations, the “Red Alert” estimates that close to half of cisgender women of reproductive age (18-49) could lose abortion access if and when Roe is overturned.
The number increases when expanded to include all people who can become pregnant.
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In addition to affirming the necessity of recognizing abortion rights as fundamental in and of themselves, advocates connect the right to abortion and bodily autonomy to the Constitution’s broader protection of liberty. In 2018, the Center for Reproductive Rights released a report exploring the connection between the rights established in the landmark abortion cases and related rights of bodily integrity, medical decision making, marriage, contraception and sexual rights.
“Any erosion of our right to liberty would mean losing much more than the right to abortion,” the report reads, noting the established right to liberty depends on a collection of rights without which liberty would not exist. The Supreme Court’s prior recognition of the right to abortion is grounded in rights to make medical decisions and privacy.
Given the deep threats to both abortion rights and broader freedoms, a group of leading Mississippi reproductive health and justice organizations formed the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition to coordinate response during the ensuing legal battle and provide resources to residents. In a press conference ahead of the Supreme Court oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the group contextualized the current battle in terms of the impact of communities across the Magnolia state.
“People [who] are forced to carry pregnancies not only have their bodily autonomy taken away from them, they face the economic burden of raising children when they may not be able to afford [them] making families more likely to experience food and housing insecurity,” said Valencia Robinson, executive director of Mississippi in Action. Founded in 2009, Mississippi in Action approaches sexual and reproductive health advocacy through a holistic approach merging advocacy with community health.
While Dobbs originally centered around the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, the state’s legal team has made it clear it seeks to overturn abortion at the highest level.
“Mississippi is one of 12 states with trigger bans, laws designated to ban abortion immediately if Roe is overturned,” Cassandra Welchlin, lead organizer/co-convener of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, said. “Without Roe, even more people across the south and the Midwest regions of the U.S. will be without critical access to abortion care. The autonomy to make decisions about their own bodies, lives, futures and families will be taken away.”
A project from the Center for Reproductive Rights evaluated state reproductive health priorities, finding that states with more abortion restrictions had fewer supportive measures for overall reproductive health, such as improving the Medicaid income limit for pregnant people and restrictions on shackling incarcerated pregnant people. Mississippi was in the bottom five states along with Texas, Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma.
“We need to make access and information to all forms of abortion care more available so that people can safely make their own health care decisions in their communities. Abortion restrictions are medically unnecessary, based on false assumptions and have deeply racist origins,” said Michelle Colon, executive director of SHERo. “Protecting abortion access is essential to reproductive justice, the human right to maintain personal autonomy, have children, not to have children, [and] parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
As Colon explains, broadening the scope beyond fighting simply for abortion access addresses long-standing disparities in health and well-being that impact marginalized communities. Abortion is health care, and the decision of whether to have one is among the many personal medical decisions people make every day.
Mississippi is not only at the forefront of limiting abortion access, but it lags in equal access to necessary sexual and reproductive health-related services compared to other states.
“A lot of counties don’t have health departments and places where they can access birth control services, STI testing and things like that,” explained Tyler Harden, Mississippi’s state director for Planned Parenthood Southeast. “Our state has yet to expand access to Medicaid. And we know that when people are given the opportunity to take control of their health and to have access to the things that they need, then they are able to make decisions that are best for them and their families.”
Recognizing the disparate impact on rural communities, Welchlin said Medicaid expansion is key to expanding reproductive health care. Failing to expand Medicaid creates a broader crisis of care across the state. According to Mississippi State University, more than half of the state’s population lives in rural areas and either all or a portion of the 82 counties are considered “medically underserved.” Combined with the crisis of rural hospital closures, Mississippi officials disregard people’s basic health needs.
“Mississippi is so rural and those folks don’t have access to clinics where they can go and just get the basic care that they need in order to be whole and healed,” Welchlin said. “If the state of Mississippi and our decision makers expanded Medicaid then we’ll be able to have a robust health care infrastructure across the state where people can access contraceptive care and just even taking care of a woman who is pregnant.”
Colon agreed, noting that marginalized communities face discriminatory obstacles to reproductive health care across the South and Midwest.
“Mississippians [should] have the right to get the health care they need without shame, unnecessary obstacles and restrictions and government interference in our decisions,” Colon said.
During an August interview, Colon said there were new restrictions in the state every year since she moved to Mississippi. Colon, who has been in the state since 1997, said Mississippi had been fighting issues often overlooked until a wealthier state gets slammed with a similar fight.
She recounted the big fight in Texas in 2013 when former state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered a bill that would have banned abortion after 20 weeks and required abortion clinics to be licensed ambulatory surgery centers. Colon said that the momentum and organizing in Texas was great, but people in Mississippi had been fighting the same fight and it barely received any coverage.
“I wasn’t overreacting when I talked about this, you know, 20 years ago,” began Colon. “I wasn’t overreacting five years ago. And we were damn sure not overreacting last year.”
With only three judges guaranteed to uphold Roe, Colon said this isn’t some dystopian film or book. It’s real life.
“What people have learned now over the last 10 years, you don’t necessarily have to ‘overturn Roe,’ you just continue fucking with the existing abortion rights and hurting women and girls and people trying to get an abortion,” Colon continued. “The entire country is Mississippi, baby, whether they want to admit it or not. And so, nobody is really safe.”
Calling Mississippi “an abortion desert,” Colon said that in addition to having only one clinic, the state has some of the most stringent anti-abortion laws in the country. Mandatory wait times, multiple clinic visits and laws targeting abortion providers that go beyond what is necessary to ensure patient safety, such as hospital-admitting privileges, all contribute to the burden on abortion access.
Despite the so-called “culture of life” that Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and other anti-abortion officials claim to espouse, their narrow concern for so-called life runs counter to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the United States, which strive “toward preventing maternal mortality and morbidity, to secure women’s and girls’ right to equality and non-discrimination, and to ensure their right to life.”
While federal legislative interventions are important to protecting people’s right to personal liberty and bodily autonomy, Mississippi organizers are not waiting for national saviors.
“Our priority should be making sure that people have access to the health care that they want [and] need,” Colon said. “That means ensuring that people who want to get an abortion at a clinic or doctor’s office can do so without restrictions or barriers.”