What an abortion clinic in Mississippi looks like right now
Mississippi’s latest abortion clinic is almost certainly running on borrowed time. In early May, a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion suggested that the Conservative majority bench would strike down the constitutional right to abortion as established in Roe vs. Wade. Such a move would pave the way for significant rollbacks at the state level. An official decision is expected in the coming weeks.
But for now, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the clinic at the center of the high-profile court case — remains open.
Cheryl Hamlin is a Massachusetts doctor who travels monthly to Jackson to perform abortions at “the pink house,” as the clinic is known for its bubblegum-colored exterior. Once there, she usually works three days before returning home to Cambridge. Hamlin told me May’s flight didn’t change much of her daily life in Mississippi, but things had changed before that: In the fall of 2021, a Texas law severely restricting abortion sparked a wave of patients to Mississippi from State.
I spoke with Hamlin twice recently to discuss the clinic’s plans for a post-deer world – and what it’s like to operate while simultaneously bracing for impact.
Our conversations have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Let’s go back to the night of Policy leak. It was a Monday. You were in Jackson. Did you just get there?
Cheryl Hamlin: Yeah. I had flown that day. That night, the emails started coming in. I’m on many mailing lists, like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the Center for Reproductive Rights. They just all poured in.
Nyce: So you wake up on Tuesday and you go to the clinic. How was it? Had the tenor changed?
Hamlin: Only initially upon arrival. A few of us hugged and got back to work. We’ve all talked about it. I don’t think there was much else to say. We’re still going up to 16 weeks until they tell us we can’t.
A woman said to me: “Are you going to be unemployed?” And I said, “No, no, no, it’s going to be fine. I’m worried about you guys. And she said, “No, I’m taking these pills and I’m never coming back.” I’m doing well. And I’m like, “Okay, we’re both fine.” But there are many people who will not.
Maybe I was a little angry, I guess. We do this group counseling before seeing them individually. And as part of the group council, I always tell people to vote. I try to be politically diplomatic: I don’t tell them who to vote for or anything like that. But that day, I explained it more bluntly than usual, like: It will overthrow Roe v. Wade, which means that this clinic will close, just like all other clinics in the South and Midwest. And so it’s up to the states. And I mentioned [Governor] Greg Abbott by name: He is a candidate for re-election. So those of you from Texas, you have to vote for it. I’m normally not very assertive about politics.
Once we got back to work it was the same as the past few months when we just got slammed with people from out of state.
We get so many people from Texas or Louisiana, because Louisianans can’t get appointments, because of people from Texas. There is a domino effect. But from April to May, there was not much change.
Nyce: So the biggest change came earlier, in terms of increased demand for dates?
Hamlin: Right. Usually people could call and come the day after we opened. But now it’s like a two-week wait, and there’s a limited number of surgical slots. Rarely, there have been a few occasions where we were unable to care for someone because there were simply no surgical windows until they were 16 weeks old. It never happened.
Nyce: When did this start happening?
Hamlin: I really noticed it maybe in March. But it’s been going on for a bit since the Texas law came into effect, which is in September. It really hit me in March, like, Oh my God, we don’t have room for all these people.
Nyce: We have been in this period of calm between the Policy flight and the truly advance decision. What does it do?
Hamlin: We plan to open a clinic in New Mexico, and I’m working on getting a New Mexico license. We talked about what we can do with the Mississippi clinic: depending on what the law allows us to do, can it be a referral site? Can people come in for their ultrasound and find a way to get them to New Mexico? What about fundraising? And the pills?
I’m sure it will be illegal to return or send pills to Mississippi – it already is now. They still have to pick it up in person; I don’t see it getting any easier. But what kind of loopholes will we be able to jump through, that we won’t endanger ourselves or women?
Nyce: Is he busy trying to prepare for what could potentially happen in the next few weeks?
Hamlin: Yeah. Especially since we do not know exactly what the decision will be. Is this really going to happen, or will it just be the 15 week ban? There would certainly be repercussions to that, but it’s a lot better.
What things are going to be illegal? How difficult are they going to make it for us, for example, to do ultrasounds on people so that we can refer them? Are we going to be able to do this?
It’s hard to plan anything right now. Many non-medical people have asked me, “What can I do?” Can I get down there and drive vans? I’m sure there will be room for van drivers, but I don’t know yet.
I feel like there are too many people saying, “We’re just going to make sure everyone gets pills. It’s a good last resort. But they don’t always work. And patients might need care afterwards. While many women know exactly where they stand, some are wrong and may take pills inappropriately.
The point I want to keep hammering home is that even though people have the luxury of leaving the state for their procedure or getting pills in the mail, they still need follow-up care. Will you go to the emergency room if you suddenly start bleeding? You are not. I think this will lead, as it did before-deerto a lot of illness and death, potentially.
Nyce: Where do you think the pro-choice movement has failed to get its message across?
Hamlin: I thought about it maybe more in the last month than in the rest of my life. Maybe it’s just that we played defense. In a way, the right controls the narrative. How did they become patriots and true religious?
They always talk about late abortions, which is such a tiny part of what we do, and most of them are for really devastating reasons. In fact, I received two postcards at home. And one of them was this horrible picture of this dismembered fetus, probably around 20 weeks old. That’s not really what we do in Jackson. The other was an old photo—I don’t think it’s recent history—of a girl who died after an abortion. And I think, Oh my God, every day we hear about mass shootings. Obviously, it’s tragic, but compared to everything that’s going on, I mean, my God.
I think it needs to be made clear that this is a human rights issue. And if you’re really concerned about abortion, you should legislate policies that make it less likely. We should have universal health care, better sex education and better access to birth control. Let’s do these things first, then maybe we’ll come back and talk.
Nyce: Have you ever had qualms about abortion? Are there any instances where you think this shouldn’t be an option?
Hamlin: Yes of course. You get that once in a while, like, What am I doing? But then you look at the woman’s face and her story.
We’ve had conversations about people choosing to have abortions because of their gender, and it sounds awful. A person recently came from somewhere in Asia. She had a daughter and found out this pregnancy was a girl and just felt like if she brought another girl home she would be ostracized. It was something really horrible for her. And even though it’s awful for me to think that having a daughter would be awful, it was for her. Guess I just have to say, who am I to judge?
I’ve definitely heard people say, “Oh, I’m just not ready this year. I think I will have a baby next year. And part of me wants to say, “Well, that’s kinda stupid.”
But these are the exceptions. And who knows what’s going on this year isn’t right? I try to take a ‘don’t judge’ position because I can’t understand what’s going on in their lives.
Nyce: Obviously, a lot of Americans think what’s going on at the clinic amounts to murder. Do you often think about these people and their perspectives?
Hamlin: Yeah. I guess I understand why someone might think that. Out of context, if you’re just talking about ending the life of a fetus, that sounds really awful. But there’s all this big context involved: what if you don’t? What will happen to the woman? What will happen to his other children?
I think there are people who can really call themselves pro-life in the sense that they are against capital punishment and would be in favor of universal health care. And they would recognize that a dying baby in Africa is as important as a dying baby in the United States. I think they are actually exceptions. Most people who yell at me that I’m a mass murderer really don’t think about those other things. And they’re not really “pro-life” in the sense that I would call pro-life, in the sense that it’s okay for some people to die; it is simply not acceptable for fetuses to die.