Here's something you may not know: Although Roe v. Wade made a woman's right to an abortion the law of the land 40 years ago, ten percent of U.S. states—five states, currently—have only one clinic still performing abortions in the entire state.
In Mississippi, one of those five, Jackson Women's Health Organization, in Jackson, Mississippi, is in peril of being shut down, thanks to Mississippi House Bill 1390, which requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. If a physician is not granted such privileges—and these have been denied the doctors who work at Jackson Women's Health Organization—they may not legally continue to perform the procedure. In February 2013, the Mississippi Senate also passed the "Women's Health Defense Act of 2013," which limits use of abortion-inducing drugs mifepristone and misoprostol.
The possible—even probable—closing of the clinic is what brought filmmaker Maisie Crow to Jackson in summer 2012 within days of her first learning about the clinic’s predicament. The result was her recently released 49-minute documentary, The Last Clinic, available on Atavist ($3.99).
The film offers an intimate look inside the Jackson Women's Health Organization and its patients, staff, nurses, and the physician who flies from Washington, D.C. monthly to perform the procedures. Crow’s film introduces viewers to Miriam, a 19-year-old who terminates her pregnancy, and Jasmine, who considers abortion but instead opts to have her child, a son.
TakePart recently talked to Crow about the film and the possible closing of Mississippi's last abortion clinic:
TakePart: What was the story you wanted to tell here and how did you go about finding people to talk to?
Maisie Crow: For me I thought it was really important for people to see and understand what was happening in Mississippi. When I went down to Mississippi the first time I showed up at the clinic the first day and thought, what I am going to be able to film? This is a very personal and private issue; I didn’t know what my access would be.
I was driving around neighborhoods and looking for women to talk to. Teen pregnancy rates are increasing in Mississippi, and I was interested in talking to teen moms who had considered abortion but didn't have an abortion. I pulled into a parking lot and met Jasmine's grandmother; she said, "Go in and talk to my granddaughter." She was the first mom I talked to who didn't get an abortion, but thought about an abortion; she is obsessed with her child, but she is also struggling and facing the reality of being a single mom. I went back a couple of times and we developed a friendship and she opened up to me.
Eventually, I got access to the clinic. They told me, "You'll have to talk to every woman and see if they'll talk to you." So I would just go and sit there. There's a room called the "ready room," where they counsel women. And I'd just kind of chat and talk to people, and eventually Miriam agreed [to be in the film]. The first scene of her in the film is her in post-op, so she'd already had the first procedure, so I met her when she is in post-op and then I went to her home and kept following her for a couple of months. And then she called and said she was pregnant again and that was upsetting for me and her because neither of us were expecting that.
In the film we see Dr. Parker counseling a group of women before their abortion. He is required by law to tell them specific things, such as that abortion raises a woman's risk of breast cancer, though he also tells them that there is no scientific evidence for this.
I think it just speaks to all the obstacles that women face when it comes to healthcare in Mississippi. I was shocked by that, and I sat in on so many of those sessions just listening to that, and it was always so surprising. But on the other [pro-life] side, they believe that that is the truth.
It's pretty clear watching this film that you aimed to be very fair to both sides—the pro-choice and the pro-life factions. How important was this to you?
Personally, I'm pro-choice. Most of the people I filmed would ask me if I was pro-life or pro-choice. And I would tell them I'm pro-choice, but I think it's important to film both sides. And I'm interested in learning about both sides. You can go into a topic and be swayed to another side. I wasn't swayed to change my beliefs, because I'm still pro-choice, but I found that when I went down to Mississippi, I was just focusing on the clinic, and I realized that would have been a large oversight on my part if I had done that the entire time because the situation is made complex by both sides not being able to come to an agreement. So I had to give that other side a voice. But I felt like both sides of the argument were so clear in their beliefs, so I didn't feel like there had to be any editorializing. I just felt like I had to show what was happening.
I do believe that both sides believe wholeheartedly they are right, so I don’t see that there's any right or wrong to show. I had a lot of respect for the pro-life side because given that I told them I was pro-choice before I filmed them, they still gave me access. I really appreciate that. I kind of went into it just following the story, letting the story happen in front of my camera, but in the editing process I really had to hold strong to trying to represent both sides equally. And I felt like I gave both sides equal screen time.
I think you achieved a balance on a very difficult and contentious topic. I particularly enjoyed Esther, who sits outside the clinic every day, protesting.
It's like an entire ecosystem. The question I didn't ask that I wish I had asked is, "Esther, what are you going to do if the clinic actually closes?" To her, it's like a job. She comes out every afternoon and sits there. Where is she going to go? Will she go to another clinic? Or has she finished her mission? So they thrive off each other.
The essay that accompanies your film on Atavist notes that four other states only have one abortion clinic left too. Did you choose Mississippi for a particular reason?
I had no clue. I knew more about abortion than a lot of people in my generation— I'm 31—but I'm too young to remember Roe v. Wade and what it was like before Roe v. Wade. But I do think a lot of people in my generation don't even know what Roe v. Wade is unless they're very plugged-in, which is really unfortunate.
So my knowledge of abortion was pretty surface. So when I got down there I had no idea there were five states with just one clinic. I was so startled and shocked by the fact that there was one clinic left, and that's why I went down there. So there was no choosing. I was aware of the high teen pregnancy rates in Mississipi. I'm from Texas originally and I was researching teen pregnancy rates in Texas; I very quickly switched over to Mississippi.
Did you want to communicate to a new audience about reproductive rights?
It's really important to me, especially to my generation. I know that I have always taken it for granted. I live in New York now. If I want access to contraceptives it's real easy for me to go get on birth control. However, I was startled and shocked when I got to Mississippi to find out even how difficult that is.
The lack of sex education really leads to these serious situations. They have one of the lowest abortion rates, but they have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates, one of the highest maternal mortality rates, and I think all of those are all linked together through the lack of sex education. So it's important for my generation and anyone else who's not aware of it to learn more.
The essay with your film notes that there's a competition among the red states to be the first one that's "abortion-free." Where do you see this fight going?
I'm worried there will be a state that becomes abortion-free. But I thinks if that happens it'll be a wakeup call, and I think it might swing the other way and more people will wake up and become concerned that's happening. It's going to be horrible for women in Mississippi, but I do wonder if itll bring more awareness.
To watch The Last Clinic, go to Atavist.com.
To support work to keep the Jackson Women's Health Organization open, go to the Center for Reproductive Rights.
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Interview conducted by TakePart Health Editor Lorie Parch