Noisy conflict is common outside Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, with protesters sometimes using bullhorns to amplify their voices and the clinic itself blaring music to keep patients from hearing the protesters.
Owners of nearby businesses say the commotion is a headache for their customers who want to enjoy a meal or buy some clothes.
In response, the Jackson City Council voted 3-1 this week to enact a local law limiting amplified sound outside health care facilities and creating buffer zones to move protesters further from the entrances. The law is set to take effect in about a month, and opponents say it unconstitutionally limits their right to free speech. A court challenge is likely.
The council vote came days before a federal appeals court was set to hear arguments over a 2018 Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks.
Like many places in the Deep South, Mississippi is a conservative state with a Republican-led Legislature that has been enacting laws to restrict access to abortion. Southern cities where abortion clinics are located tend to be more socially and politically liberal. That’s the case in Jackson, where most City Council members are Democrats.
But, during the Jackson debate, council members said limiting noise and creating a buffer zone is an attempt to help patients and local businesses rather than to help the clinic.
“This really is about access to health care,” Council president Virgi Lindsay, a Democrat, said after noting that people who spoke for the ordinance live in Jackson while most of those who spoke against it live other places.
The scene outside the bright pink clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, was relatively quiet, without amplified sound.
One man, who’s a regular there, held wooden rosary beads and murmured prayers. A few men and women tried to hand biblical tracts to people as they drove into the clinic parking lot. Three people wearing rainbow-striped vests emblazoned with “Clinic Escort” took turns trying to block protesters’ view of the patients, and some escorts walked with women from their cars to the clinic door.
As a vehicle with a license plate from Newton County, Mississippi, drove into the parking lot, Pastor David Lane called out: “I know some folks in Newton who will help you! I know some folks in Newton who will adopt your baby!”
“Oh, David, that’s enough,” clinic escort Derenda Hancock said to him with exasperation.
People from both sides are outside the clinic so often that many of the protesters and the volunteer clinic escorts know each other by name.
The clinic is in Jackson’s eclectic Fondren neighborhood, a short drive from the Capitol building where legislators have enacted several abortion restrictions that have been blocked by federal courts.
Across the street from the clinic, protesters sometimes stand outside restaurants and a T-shirt shop and hold graphic posters of aborted fetuses. Hancock said the ordinance won’t get rid of those images but could reduce the noise.
“If it is enforced the way it should be, it will allow the Jackson Women’s Health Organization to be more like it should be _ a normal health clinic where women can come and at least have some dignity and some privacy,” Hancock said.
The Jackson ordinance prohibits people from protesting within 15 feet (5 meters) of any entrance to a health care facility. It also says that within 100 feet (30 meters) of the entrance of a health care facility, each person has a “personal bubble zone” of 8 feet (2 meters), and that unless the person gives permission, nobody else may get inside the bubble to hand over a leaflet or to engage in “oral protest, education or counseling.” Further, the ordinance prohibits amplified sound within 100 feet (30 meters) of the property line of a health care facility.
Violation carries a $1,000 fine, 90 days in jail or both.
A federal appeals court in February upheld the constitutionality of a 2009 Chicago ordinance that created an 8-foot (2-meter) bubble zone outside medical facilities. But, in 2014, the Supreme Court struck down a 2007 Massachusetts law that banned people from standing within 35 feet (11 meters) of an abortion clinic.
Dr. Coleman Boyd, an emergency room physician who leads a nondenominational Christian church in a Jackson suburb, said he and his family often pray outside the clinic and to try to talk women out of having abortions. He believes the ordinance is unconstitutional.
“They have one purpose,” Boyd said. “They want to silence those who are against abortion.”
The owner of the T-shirt shop, Ron Chane, told the City Council abortion protesters have yelled across the street at him. He said he didn’t deserve “any of those self-righteous comments.” He also expressed frustration with the clinic, saying if it was up to him and other local business owners, the clinic might not be there at all.
“Maybe it would be a dog park or a parking lot,” Chane said. “We just want peace.”