Cover Story

Delta force

Mississippi pro-life activists' success in fighting abortion shows not only can some battles be won at the state level-but it can be done with broad bipartisan support

Issue: "Abortion: Delta force," Jan. 22, 2005

For the past two years, Mississippi pro-life activists have marked this month's Roe v. Wade anniversary with a haunting monument: 2,000 small, white crosses staked in solemn ranks on the south lawn of the Capitol building in Jackson. Each represents a baby killed by legal abortion. Last year, pro-abortion activists, under cover of darkness, suspended coat hangers from the crosses. Last week, the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration cited an obscure state law and canceled this year's memorial, telling organizers that the crosses were "harming the soil."

It was a rare setback for Magnolia State pro-lifers, who enjoy so much success in working with state government that Mississippi has become for pro-aborts a blueprint for failure.

The number of abortions in the state has plummeted from a high of 8,814 in 1991 to 3,605 in 2002, the most recent year for which data is available. Once home to seven abortion businesses, only a single clinic, the Jackson Women's Health Organization (JWHO), remains. Mississippi is one of only two states with a two-parent consent law for minor girls seeking abortions. And legislators there have passed more laws to protect pregnant women and unborn children than any other state-six in 2004 alone.

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

On one level, that's true, if 2004 is any indication. Last year Mississippi lawmakers passed-and Gov. Haley Barbour signed-a record number of pro-life measures:

• comprehensive conscience protection

• fetal homicide protection

• requirements to report abortion complications

• new clinic regulations

• and a law that prohibits non-ambulatory abortion clinics from killing pre-borns beyond the first trimester.

All the while, Gov. Barbour, former head of the Republican National Party, was hardly surfing a wave of pro-life partisanship. Democrats control both chambers of the Mississippi legislature.

But they are largely Southern Democrats. They may lean on government for economic solutions, but many remain socially conservative. Others-and some pro-abortion Republicans-"would fight us behind the scenes," said Rep. Carmel Wells-Smith. "But when it came to a vote, they voted with us because they didn't want the folks back home to know they had voted against the pro-life movement."

Communities and families hold people accountable, explained Susan Seale, 61, a retired teacher who has counseled women and girls on abortion-clinic sidewalks for 20 years. "Everyone knows their legislator-they all know 'Charlie,' and God help Charlie if he voted anti-life. His grandmother would get him at the next family reunion."

It took 18 months after the 1973 Roe decision before grandmothers had to worry much about abortion. The first clinic didn't open in Mississippi until Dr. Beverly McMillan hung out her shingle in Jackson in the fall of 1974. Meanwhile, citizens opposed to Roe, including Paul Fowler of Reformed Theological Seminary, laid the groundwork for resistance. In 1980, he began organizing Jackson's first right-to-life group. By then, Dr. McMillan had closed shop and repudiated elective abortion, she told a pro-life conference in 1989: "I had my eyes opened up to what God thought about unborn human life."

At about the same time, other small-town Mississippians began to realize that nine black-robed men in Washington, D.C., had opened their state to a new trade. The state's annual abortion count stood at 5,000 but would soon grow.

"In 1981, I woke up to it all," said Mrs. Seale, who with her husband Larry lives in Philadelphia, Miss. "The [pro-life] movement was beginning across the country, but there was this great, loud silence in many churches."

To make some noise, the Seales teamed with a group of obstetricians to launch a right-to-life group in Meridian, Miss. "We came together to rescue babies. We would pray, we would go sit in front of the clinics. The police were called and sometimes would haul us away." Mrs. Seale's job was mostly sidewalk counseling. "We found it fruitful to say to girls, 'We love you and we're not trying to frighten you . . . you deserve better than this.'"

In 1985, the Seales moved to Oklahoma City, where they continued working in the "rescue" wing of the pro-life movement. When they returned to Mississippi in 1996, Mrs. Seale remembers, a group of Christian activists had faithfully plowed the state's conservative soil, starting right-to-life groups and educating congregations and city groups with literature and films. By then, pro-lifers had teamed with conservative legislators to regulate clinics, to require parental consent, informed consent, and a mandatory 24-hour waiting period.


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