Anti-Choice Harassment and Access to Abortion In Mississippi: An Interview with Dr. Willie Parker

Dr. Willie Parker is accustomed to the clinic protesters parading outside of the various facilities where he provides abortion. Like any abortion provider he has unfortunately seen his share of self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselors” provoking clinic staff and cajoling women to change their minds. But at Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last public abortion facility in the state of Mississippi, the sidewalk activities are more tense, the crowd a little louder, and the environment just that much more intimidating.

Clinic protesters are energized by a number of circumstances. The state has only one clinic left and JWHO is in mid-litigation with its fate resting solely in the hands of the courts. And despite their failure to take over the federal government, anti-choice politicians are seeking to eliminate access to abortion—at least in one state.

With all those factors in play, it is no wonder those who oppose abortion are getting noticeably bolder in their tactics.

“They are fairly assertive,” Dr. Parker said diplomatically in a phone interview with RH Reality Check, referring to the recent gathering of Operation Save America post election day. “There were a couple of very animated people. Indirectly, when I talked to patients they had mentioned the protesters were very assertive to them.”

Mississippi’s clinic is definitely a leader when it comes to attracting highly-determined anti-choice activists, Dr. Parker agreed.

There are episodic periods at other clinics, like the 40 Days, or when people bus in kids, bring in religious youth groups, or have other organized activities where those who don’t normally get the chance to demonstrate their opposition to abortion on a regular basis. But those activists in Mississippi probably feel like they are as close as they have ever been to achieving their goal of shutting down the clinic and making Mississippi an abortion free state. I would say that there is more sense of fervor and sense that victory is just around the corner. In that way, there is a bit more of a targeted effort in Mississippi. But given that there is only one clinic, and people have always been able to target on that one clinic, I think that in other places where there is more than one clinic and people are trying to coordinate activity, in Mississippi there seems to be more of a sense of urgency and a sense of the potential to prevail.

“[Protest activities] had calmed down and become milder but there has definitely been an uptick associated with the political cycle,” said Dr. Parker, who believes that it may be a sense of potential victory egging them on. The more in danger the clinic seems, the more aggressive the protesters may be getting, seeing their own actions as a symbolic, if not direct assistance to the state agencies acting to shut it down.

The protesters are acting under the impression that the closing of the clinic is a done deal. As it gets closer, they are certainly tracking things. They seem to feel that they need to agitate now to push the law forward and that seems to animate them.

Operation Save America admits a bit of personal pride in seeing the clinic in such dire straits. But they dismiss the idea that they, or anti-choice protesters in general, have had some sort of role in the situation in Mississippi. Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas, a key leader and organizer for OSA’s “States of Refuge Tour,” told RH Reality Check via email that they are simply the instrument to ending abortion, whereas God will end access once and for all.

“As far as us believing we played a role or would seek to take credit for what is happening in Mississippi, [that] would be tantamount to the donkey thinking the praise was for him as Christ rode into Jerusalem,” said Rev. Thomas. “We believe the Lord has revealed that soon America will experience the first abortion free state. He opened our eyes to see this opportunity. Our duty is to follow and trust God for the results.”

If Thomas and OSA’s National Director Flip Benham have their way, there will be a lot of followers in Mississippi to watch this “opportunity” firsthand. The group is imploring abortion opponents who want to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision to abandon the annual March for Life in D.C. and come to Jackson instead. In an email to activists, Benham wrote:

We are being destroyed as a nation by an enemy from within.  We are being destroyed by a lie that was birthed in the very pit of hell.  This lie took its physical form in the Roe v. Wade decision issued by the Supreme Court of the United States of America on January 22, 1973.  This is a battle that only God’s Church can win!

So we are headed back to Jackson, Mississippi, this 40th Memorial of Roe v. Wade. We will be there January 20-22, 2013. We will have a memorial service on Tuesday, January 22, 2013, that will end at 12:30 PM. For those of you that are already doing memorial services, for the over 55 million children killed, in your cities at that time please let your local leaders organize that and come join us in Jackson.

See you in Jackson as we again storm the gates of hell – they cannot prevail!

The storm may arrive a little too early, however. Although the state can send a notice of intent to revoke the clinic’s license as early as January 12th, 2013, there are still standard processes involved in actually closing the clinic that should ensure JWHO stays open at least a few weeks longer. Then again, with representatives like Sam Mims asking for immediate inspections when the TRAP law went into effect, and looking for ways to bypass the standard grace period that would apply, nothing can be totally certain.

It would take a great deal of effort on the behalf Gov. Phil Bryant’s administration to revoke JWHO’s license in time for OSA’s memorial services, as tempting as the symbolism of closing on the 40th anniversary of Roe might be to the anti-choice community. Rev. Thomas and the States of Refuge campaign are willing to take what victories they can find, however, especially if it will encourage the movement to do more. OSA is ready to end abortion one state at a time, and change the federal government when the time is right.

With the advent of Obama’s re-election, it is clear Washington D.C. will not receive the Christian/Pro-life message,” Rev. Thomas said. “This current administration is not only the most pro-abortion, but Obama as a state senator voted several times to support infanticide. He voted to allow children to die in a closet gasping for life, if they survived the assault against his/her lives. Thus, we suggest a different strategy is in order. The States of Refuge campaign believes we must first win the battle locally on the state level to prepare the way for the day when Washington D.C. will gladly receive the Christian/Pro-life message as the new law of the land.”

Rev. Thomas doesn’t believe it will take long to change hearts, either. “People are warming up to the States of Refuge campaign. Once they see the potential of the vision, there is a resounding amen.”

It isn’t an “amen” that has foiled the OB-GYNs at JWHO, but a set of hospitals unwilling to offer admitting privileges to the doctors as the new law requires, fearing that they too might get caught in the crossfire of anti-choice zealotry and harassment. Considering the aggression the “activists” have taken verbally against clinicians, patients, and even the trash person, for hospitals to shy away from what they have politely referred to as potential “disruption” is sadly unsurprising.

“There is a tendency of the hospitals to see themselves as apolitical. They don’t want to have that attention,” said Dr. Parker. “Also, hospitals are very dependent on the government, and the fact that they might antagonize the government and they need funding may be factoring in.”

Dr Parker believes it is “risk aversion,” more than anything that has cause the hospitals to turn down requests, surmising that the hospitals “don’t want to make any missteps.”

The way they have framed their reply—that if they are to grant admitting priviliges it would be disruptive to their internal and external operations — says to me that they are very mindful of being perceived as an ally or at least not anti-abortion and that they will receive the same protest activity there as well.

For Dr. Parker, that is the greatest frustration with the TRAP law. Without hospitals willing to take the risk to allow the doctors privileges, the state legislature’s request for them under the guise of “patient safety” could cut off access to safe abortion all together. “If I could truly see that they had the interests of the women at heart, and truly wanted to make sure that they were making abortion safe, then I could just choose to honestly disagree with them,” said Dr. Parker. Yet in reality, it is an unnecessary regulation seeking to solve a non-existent problem. “There is no evidence for perceiving abortion to be dangerous nor any uptick in complications in the state of Mississippi, and certainly not in this clinic, that would warrant these regulations that now threaten to close the clinic.”

There may be no evidence, but that isn’t stopping the legislature from implimenting the new law, the hospitals from rejecting the doctors, or anti-choice protesters from cheering on a victory for which they are obviously responsible.

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  • leslie-palma

    The March for Life in D.C. January will be on the 25th, not the 22nd as usual. There’s an inauguration in town.

    And just a comment on the photo: That group doesn’t look particularly scary to me.

  • jennifer-starr

    That group doesn’t look particularly scary to me.

    Really?  They’re crowding around the doors, waiting to mob and harrass anyone coming in or out–that would be quite intimidating for any patients or staff. 

  • crowepps

    I think they look intimidating, because there’s no reason for them to be there.

    It’s intimidating to know that as soon as you start up the sidewalk they’re going to home in on you and start talking at you, because that isn’t the way people normally behave on a public sidewalk.  Generally speaking, you can walk into a building and go about your legal business without total strangers accosting you.

    It’s intimidating to know that strangers feel entitled to demand to know your private business, demand that you explain yourself and justify your decisions, self-righteously are judging you as unworthy of respect and consideration based on what they imagine you are like and what they imagine you are doing.  People who respect others don’t attempt to tell those people what to do, or think, or feel. 

    Of course groups that use terrorist tactics are scary.   They are deliberately acting outside the normal customs and practices of our society and using fear and intimidation in order to extort behavior changes from others.  Most people are scared of lunatics who shout at them on the street and rightfully so.  Everybody in the country knows that groups like this include and tolerate the presence of religious fanatics, political whackaloons and mentally ill obsessives, who may have guns or knives or acid or bombs hidden in their clothes, and be revving themselves up to attack the ‘baby-killers’.

    Of course *you* aren’t scared; these are your kind of people.

  • lindzanne

    Try standing next to them at a clinic defense sometime, or trying to shove your way through a group like the one in the photo just to get your papsmear.   I had no idea anyone could make me feel so scared just with words.  My experience is that these groups certainly sound like terrorists, and they certainly make you feel like they are.  

    But, as crowepps said, if these are your kind of people, you have nothing to be scared of when you’re the one weilding all the intimidation.  

  • robin-marty

    OSA is encouraging people from out of town, so most who would be inclined to go to DC for March to Life would be unlikely to be able to also attend the rally in Jackson right before it. As for the tactics outside the clinic, if you would like to see first hand to judge, click on the link in the piece that says “trash collector” to see a video that some of the members have created showing their work in Jackson.

  • give-em-hell-mary

    The sight of all those marching pampered pedophile priests, holy wife beaters and cheaters, their stupid cheated-on brood mares, and their bratty or bullied broods brings on my PTSD nightmare memories of my family’s abuse.  My abusive mom and cheating dad regularly protested a PP clinic in Doylestown, PA on Saturdays.  I wonder what kind of birth control my anti-choice dad used when he cavorted with his favorite hooker from my sister’s Archbishop Wood high school class?!