JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi can be a little defensive. “Yes, we have running water… right next to the world’s finest kitchen appliances” says the display you walk past as you arrive at Jackson-Evers International
Viking Range Corporation was founded and has its home in the state, as it turns out. Glass-enclosed exhibits highlight items, from pottery to barbecue sauce, made here in Mississippi.
Medgar Evers, the civil rights martyr the state created, is honored in the airport’s name and a special tribute, with documents and photographs extolling his virtues and mourning his murder.
The state has a lot to atone for and a lot to prove. But while it’s determined to look to the future, the messy present is what’s making national headlines. A legislative and judicial conflict could close Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s last abortion clinic, which wouldn’t bother Gov. Phil Bryant one bit.
Though protecting women’s health is the stated purpose of a bill he signed, which would require all doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, Bryant has said he wants Mississippi to be “abortion free.”
On Wednesday, a federal judge extended his temporary order blocking the law, which kept the clinic open. Then on Friday U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III said the clinic could stay open without facing penalties while it tries to comply with the new law.
A visitor can be let into the doors of the Jackson clinic, where exhausted staffers preside; owner Diane Derzis has returned to her Alabama home. One wears a T-shirt with the slogan “eggs are not people,” a reminder of Mississippi’s last abortion rights battle in November, when more than 55 percent of voters rejected an amendment that would have declared life as beginning at fertilization.
Black tarp covers the windows, blocking the view of both patients and protestors, though things were quiet at the end of this week, due to the rain, the publicity or both.
But it isn’t only the Jackson Women’s Health Organization and a cadre of semi-permanent protestors who make their home in Jackson’s trendy and historic Fondren arts district.
In the boutiques and bike shops and over artisan baked goods or tapas at eclectic restaurants, the folks for whom the debates and drama have become commonplace disagree on whether closing the clinic would be a step forward or back for the neighborhood and Mississippi.
Cindy Hatten Smith, 58, is manager of Fondren Art Gallery, across and up the street. From snatches of conversation the Jackson native overhears in the district’s coffee shop and boutiques, Smith said she believes she’s out of step with the neighborhood consensus. That doesn’t concern her, though.
“I feel very strongly that I don’t want it here,” she said of the clinic. “I don’t want it in our state period because I believe it’s morally wrong.” Smith acknowledged its right to be open, but “legal and moral do not always concur, and I shall hold the moral rather than the legal.”
Smith didn’t always feel that way. When she was in her 20s, married but not ready to have children, “I myself thought that if I became pregnant, the idea of an abortion was not abhorrent to me,” she said. “I did not have full understanding of all that a pregnancy means. I was ignorant.”
She believes the protesters also have a right and a duty to march with graphic images of bloodied fetuses. “It does tell the truth. People don’t want to be faced with that,” she said. “They don’t want it to be a part of their calm little happy world.”
Mary-Michael Lindsay, 19, who works in a nearby shop, said she already sees “a lot of constrictions” for young women in the state. “It’s good that it’s there,” she said of the clinic.
Currie McKinley, like Lindsay a college sophomore home and working in Jackson for the summer, said she doesn’t think people seeking an abortion “should be made to feel ashamed.” McKinley, a waitress at Babalu, a Fondren restaurant that offers pork belly tacos and projects “I Love Lucy” on the wall, said it’s “alarming” that the clinic might close. “It’s a class-divided and race-divided state,” said the Ole Miss student, and Mississippians with money “could always afford to go someplace else.”
The divide also bothers a doctor who sees the “aggressive protestors with lots of yucky pictures,” she said, when she stops in Fondren for lunch. While she didn’t want her name used because she works for the state at the nearby University of Mississippi Medical Center, the doctor said the clinic is not needed “if you have access to a local medical doctor and you have the means.”
“You don’t have to have admitting privileges to provide good and safe care,” she said. “An emergency room isn’t going to turn someone away if they have an emergency. There’s an ulterior motive to this law.”
Chane -- he goes by the one name -- doesn’t take a political stand. The owner of Soma, who designs and screen-prints T-shirts and sells bicycles and skateboards, straddles a line, not favoring one side or the other. But he’d like the whole controversy to be over, he said.
“The only problem we’ve got is that they’re so focused on their rights, their rights, their rights, they don’t pay attention to the rights of the people around us.” As he worked on a shirt order, he said, “I’m looking at it from a business standpoint.”
“They have the grotesque signs and little kids are having to see that, people have to see it when they’re eating hamburgers at the restaurant across the street. They take up our parking. It’s affecting my business being across the street from them, and it’s affecting my business by them being out there in the first place.”
In fact, he thinks the property where the clinic is would be an excellent spot for “a two-level parking garage and solve all the Fondren’s parking problems.”
Meanwhile, what with protesters and patients yelling back and forth, he said, “it makes a little less of a peaceful setting in a neighborhood where we’re all trying to be very hippie and peaceful.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3