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This Mass. doctor's trips to Mississippi to perform abortions will end if Roe v. Wade is overturned

The Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic, a state-licensed abortion clinic in Jackson, Miss., is seen on May 19, 2021. Also known as the "Pink House," it is shrouded with a black tarp so that its clients may enter in privacy. (Rogelio V. Solis, AP)
The Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic, a state-licensed abortion clinic in Jackson, Miss., is seen on May 19, 2021. Also known as the "Pink House," it is shrouded with a black tarp so that its clients may enter in privacy. (Rogelio V. Solis, AP)

For the last five years, Dr. Cheryl Hamlin has spent a few days every month in Jackson, Mississippi, performing abortions.

Hamlin is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge and at community women’s clinics in the area. She’s among a handful of out-of-state doctors who staff Jackson Women’s Health Organization, or what some call the “Pink House.”

It’s the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, and it pays doctors like Hamlin to fly in and perform the procedure. No Mississippi doctors work there, because the stigma of the work keeps them from getting hired anywhere else in the state, Hamlin said.

As of now, Hamlin is scheduled to travel back to Jackson in July.

But in the coming days, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce its ruling in a case that could overturn the Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion in 1973. If that happens, Mississippi is among 13 states that would ban abortion altogether.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins spoke with Hamlin about what she’s seen in her time at the Pink House and what the end of Roe v. Wade could mean for her activism moving forward.

Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On her motivation to go to Mississippi

“It started out right after the 2016 election. I felt like I needed to do more than I was doing to improve access to abortion care. I felt like I needed to know what was happening in a red state, and Mississippi was the one I went to. I really thought it would be a short stint. I really expected things to improve. But the longer I’m there, the more I see the need. And obviously things have gotten worse. There’ve been multiple laws passed since I’ve been working there. Most of them have been overturned and now we’ve got this [Supreme Court case].”

On the patients who receive care at the Pink House

“It’s a whole range that you would expect. I think that Mississippi — and Jackson in particular — has a higher percentage of African-Americans than any other state, and that’s definitely reflected in the clientele. I would say most of the women probably average on the poorer side, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get professionals. We certainly do get nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers. Young, old; no kids, lots of kids. I mean, we get the whole range.”

On anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic

“There are protesters outside the clinic for sure. Sometimes they are somewhat subdued, and sometimes they’re horrible and loud. I’ve never felt threatened, so it’s not like I’m sneaking in. But I definitely go in the back door and not the front door. And, you know, they generally say horrible things to me, but worse than that is they say really horrible things to the women walking into the clinic.”

On the difference between health care access in Mississippi and Massachusetts 

“I would say that one of the things that struck me early on, comparing it to Massachusetts, was the difference in health care options in general. Mississippi has one of the highest uninsured rates, with Massachusetts having one of the lowest. So the difference was fairly stark — that women actually didn’t get birth control because they couldn’t afford it, not so much because it wasn’t accessible.

A lot of them haven’t really seen a doctor. I’m the first doctor they’ve seen in a while, and so I do talk to them about their blood pressure, not so much related to the abortion.

Or they’ll tell me about some advice they’ve been given that just seems a little backward to me. One of the starker things was several women have said that they requested a tubal ligation or something permanent and were told no — that they’re too young, they don’t have enough kids. That seems very foreign to me, that a doctor would just say no.”

On what’s behind patients not getting the care they need

“It could either be just a lack of [doctors] taking the time to understand what the woman really needs, which we all know contributes to some of the health care disparities. Poor and women of color often aren’t listened to as well. I have no doubt that’s part of it. Some of it just may be that they’re so desperate for doctors that they may not have a lot of time for education, or maybe they’re not the most well trained.”

On locals’ reactions to her work at the clinic

“I’m surprised about the amount of support I get. The worst has been neutral. Like, ‘You know, that’s fine. I think women abuse it,’ or whatever. That was the worst comment I’ve gotten. But I’ve gotten some like, ‘Wow. Good for you. I’m so glad that you do that’ — more than you would expect, I guess.

So, the only outspoken people really are the protesters in front of the building. And when I started going, I did try to engage with them. I’ve talked to them about, ‘Well, why doesn’t Mississippi expand Medicaid? More women would have insurance and use birth control, and maybe feel more comfortable continuing a pregnancy if they weren’t worried about insurance.’ And they’re like, ‘That’s not going to make any difference.’ Nothing I say has made a difference.”

On what’s next if Roe v. Wade is overturned 

“The owner and staff at Jackson Women’s Health are opening a clinic in New Mexico. I’m working on my New Mexico license. And it’s right on the border of Texas, so it will be convenient to Texas — but still a pretty long haul for Mississippi. I’m hoping that my connections here [in Massachusetts] will help whatever women [for whom] this would be the easier step — that they can come here.

It’s going to be some fundraising. To the extent that it’s legal for both me and the woman wanting it, getting pills to them. Whatever it takes, it’s going to take a lot of creativity and multiple fronts. Then, the real answer is we need the political will to change things. We haven’t succeeded until that happens.”

On what has stuck with her about her patients’ stories

“I think one of the themes, perhaps, is a religious one, since that’s what people are claiming is the reason we should ban abortions — people saying, ‘Oh, they need to find Jesus.’ I mean, a lot of women there — they found Jesus. It’s not a lack of religion.

I’ve had things from, ‘I just want my baby to go meet Jesus right now rather than suffering through the life I have to offer them.’ Or in one case, we were sort of negotiating how we were going to get her in. And when I came back and said, ‘Alright, alright, we can get you in tomorrow,’ she said, ‘Oh, thank you, Lord Jesus. I prayed that He would speak in your ear and help me.’

That’s their religion. And who are the other people to place their religious judgement on them?”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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