By Lawrence Hurley
OXFORD, Mississippi (Reuters) – Just months before starting law school in the summer of 1973, Barbara Phillips was shocked to learn she was pregnant.
At 24, she wanted to have an abortion. The United States Supreme Court had legalized abortion nationwide months earlier with its landmark Roe v. Wade recognizing a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. But abortions weren’t legally available at the time in Mississippi, where she lived in the small town of Port Gibson.
Phillips, a black woman entangled in the civil rights movement, could feel her dream of becoming a lawyer fading away.
“It was devastating. I was desperate, ”said Phillips, sitting on the patio of her comfortable one-story home in Oxford, a college town about 160 miles (260 km) north of Jackson, the capital of Mississippi.
At the time of the Roe decision, 46 of the 50 U.S. states had some sort of criminal ban on abortion. Access was often limited to wealthy, well-connected women, who tended to be white.
With the help of a feminist group, Phillips located a doctor in New York who was willing to perform an abortion. Before Roe, New York was the only state that allowed foreign women to have abortions. She flew there for the procedure.
Now 72, Phillips does not regret her abortion. She then attended Northwestern Law School in Chicago and achieved her goal of becoming a civil rights lawyer, with a long career. Years later, she had a son when she felt the time was right.
“I was determined to decide for myself what I wanted to do with my life and my body,” said Phillips.
Abortion rights in the United States are under attack like never before since the Roe decision, with Republican-backed restrictions being enacted in many states. On December 1, the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in a case in which Mississippi seeks to revive its law, blocked by lower courts, prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mississippi upped the ante by explicitly asking the court, which has a Tory 6-3 majority, to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Such a move could set the clock back in Mississippi, which currently has only one abortion clinic, and other states, to the kind of environment on abortion access that Phillips has experienced. almost half a century ago.
Vast swathes of America could return to an era where women who wish to terminate a pregnancy are faced with the choice of undergoing a potentially dangerous illegal abortion, traveling long distances to a state where the procedure remains legal and available, or to buy abortion pills online.
Mississippi’s abortion law isn’t the only one being tested by the Supreme Court. On November 1, judges heard arguments in challenges to a Texas law banning abortion at around six weeks pregnant, but have yet to rule.
Mississippi is one of a dozen states with so-called trigger laws that would immediately ban abortion in all or most cases if Roe were canceled, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports the right to l ‘abortion.
Many are in the South, so a woman from Mississippi couldn’t get an abortion in neighboring Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, or Alabama. The closest states where abortion would remain legal, at least in the short term, would be Illinois and Florida.
According to Guttmacher, the average distance a Mississippi woman would have to travel to get to a clinic would drop from 78 miles to 380 miles (125 to 610 km) each way.
While some abortion rights advocates fear a return to appalling clandestine abortions, there has been one significant development since the pre-Roe era: abortion pills. Mississippi is one of 19 states that place restrictions on drug-induced abortions.
Mississippi officials are suspicious of what a post-Roe world might look like. Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who asked the court to quash Roe, declined an interview request, as did Republican Gov. Tate Reeves.
Mississippi Agriculture and Trade Commissioner Andy Gipson, who as a Republican state legislator helped pass the 15-week ban in 2018, called Roe v. Wade of “archaic and ancient law based on an archaic and ancient science”.
Gipson in an interview declined to answer questions about what Mississippi – or the southeastern United States – would be without abortion rights, focusing on the details of the 15-week ban.
“It’s a false story to paint this as an image of an outright ban across the entire Southeast,” Gipson said, noting the Supreme Court does not have to formally overturn Roe to uphold the law. of Mississippi.
In court documents, Fitch said that scientific advances, including contested claims that a fetus can sense pain in the early stages of pregnancy, underscore how Roe and a subsequent 1992 ruling that reaffirmed the rights to abortion are “decades out of date”.
Abortion rights advocates said any decision upholding Mississippi law would effectively gut Roe, giving states unhindered power to limit or prohibit the procedure.
Phillips is concerned about a resumption of unsafe and unregulated abortions that put women’s lives at risk.
“I’m concerned that a lot more women and girls are in the back alleys,” Phillips said. “I’m afraid we will find them dead on the country roads. “
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)