Mississippi abortions drop 50% with 'delay' law

October 01, 1992|By Fawn Vrazo | Fawn Vrazo,Knight-Ridder News Service

JACKSON, Miss. -- In August, Mississippi became the first state in the nation to require women to wait 24 hours to get an abortion. Right away, anti-abortion activist Roy McMillan realized he had a golden opportunity to rescue the unborn.

The leader of a statewide organization called the Christian Action Group, Mr. McMillan, 49, began staking out the parking lots of Jackson's two abortion clinics, writing down the license numbers young women as they drove past. Then, with addresses supplied by sympathetic police, he began visiting the women's homes -- uninvited -- to tell their parents about the planned abortions and to beg them to intercede.

He makes no apology for this. "If you were being held hostage in a room or a tomb or a womb, and I knew where you were being held hostage, would you not want me to go to that place and try to extricate you?" he asked.

Mr. McMillan's campaign is not the only remarkable thing to happen since Mississippi, edging out Pennsylvania, became the first state to require women to delay their abortions for a day. Since that happened on Aug. 10:

* Abortions have dropped by 50 percent in Mississippi, according to abortion clinic lawyers. They attribute this to women traveling out of state.

* Most women who continue to get their abortions in Mississippi are refusing to accept state materials designed to make them rethink their plans. And many say the 24-hour waiting period does not deter them at all.

* Anti-abortionists have begun offering free bed and board to women seeking abortions, hoping for a chance to pray them out of their decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court's landmark June 29 decision upholding Pennsylvania's law restricting abortion allowed a federal appeals court to lift an injunction against Mississippi's law, clearing its way. Ironically, Pennsylvania's own anti-abortion law remains in legal limbo as lawyers negotiate several remaining hurdles in the lower courts.

As a result, Mississippi's three abortion clinics are providing the nation with the first glimpse into exactly how an abortion-delay law works.

At the New Woman Medical Center here, compliance with the law has already fallen into a routine. Female callers rarely act surprised or angry anymore when they are told they must first come in for a state-mandated lecture and counseling session, then return at least 24 hours later for the actual abortion.

New Woman's doctor, Joseph Booker, is required under the law to give women a state-mandated lecture about the risks of both abortion and pregnancy. He delivers it cursorily, almost angrily.

"My name is Dr. Joseph Booker, and the state of Mississippi has required that I, under threat of criminal prosecution, dispense certain information to you," the doctor began in terse tones one ++ day last month as he faced six women sitting in a small waiting room.

Dr. Booker went on to tell the women the state-required information that although abortions carried the danger of infection, hemorrhage and other health problems, a pregnancy carried to term was more risky than an abortion done in the first three months.

Individually, the women were then taken into another room, where Dr. Booker told each the gestational age of her developing fetus. Later, a counselor gave the women another state-mandated lecture explaining, among other things, that fathers can be held liable for child support.

Clinic staffers also are required to offer women a state-produced pamphlet about fetal development, but, said clinic director Nancy Rogers, no more than one out of every 10 women has

asked to see it, a pattern repeated at the state's other clinics.

Since the new law took effect, said Ms. Rogers, abortions at New Woman have dropped from about 80 to 40 a week. She and officials at Mississippi's other abortion clinics speculate that women are traveling to clinics in New Orleans or Memphis, Tenn. Clinics in those cities do in fact report a rise in Mississippi patients.

The women who still use the Mississippi clinics tend to be poorer because they cannot afford out-of-state travel, Ms. Rogers said.

Last month, New Woman gave an abortion to a 28-year-old woman who had hitchhiked 130 miles to the clinic with $265 in cash for the procedure hidden in her bra and $14 in spending money tucked in the pocket of her shorts. After the offer of a friend's house fell through, the woman was preparing to sleep on a bench outside Jackson's Kmart until the clinic paid for her stay at a nearby Days Inn.

The woman said the 24-hour wait had not deterred her. "My mind is made up; you're not going to change it," she said.

The following day, Jackson's most well-known anti-abortion activist, Mr. McMillan, was at his usual post outside the clinic, wearing a gold cross and a T-shirt with a full-color picture of an aborted fetus. He carried a human embryo in a small vial of formaldehyde and was prepared to thrust it toward the car windows of women driving into the parking lot.

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