On Wednesday morning the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which will determine the legality of a Mississippi ban on abortion care after 15 weeks of gestation. The ban, which former Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law in 2018, poses a direct challenge to the 1973 landmark case of Roe v. Wade, and if upheld, would drastically reduce the affordability and availability of abortion care in the state.
Rosann Mariappuram, the executive director of Jane’s Due Process, a Texas-based organization that assists young patients as they navigate the legal process of receiving judicial permission for abortion, says that Dobbs has already posed a threat to abortion care. “The unfortunate truth … [is] youth are trapped in ways that adults aren’t,” Mariappuram says. “If an adult right now is pregnant they might have the ability and freedom of movement to leave, and hopefully with the help of abortion funds can pay for the procedure [and] cover travel costs.”
The judicial bypass process, which allows a judge rather than a parent to approve a minor’s request for an abortion, can take weeks. Mariappuram says that with Texas’ six-week ban on the books, patients are being referred more frequently to out-of-state clinics, including Mississippi. But if Mississippi’s ban is deemed constitutional, and surrounding states’ pre-Roe bans and trigger bans go into effect, young people will have greater difficulty driving to clinics. Bans on abortion are especially harmful to youth who are incarcerated or placed in the foster care system, with the latter having the highest pregnancy rate of any youth demographic, Mariappuram says.
Restrictive laws tend to target those who are least mobile, like patients under the age of 18, undocumented patients, those without access to their own vehicle or those who can’t afford to take time off of work to receive care. For many, the decision to pursue an abortion is a financial one: research shows that forced pregnancy actually increases the severity of poverty for at least four years compared with those who were able to access abortion services.
But financial consequences are just some of those that threaten people who might need abortion services. Mississippi is the poorest state in the country and the majority of the patients who seek abortion care are Black. Advocates fear that forced pregnancy will increase unsafe births and maternal mortality. As it stands, Mississippi has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country, and according to the Center for Reproductive Justice, a pregnant patient living in Mississippi is 14-times more likely to die from giving birth than from receiving abortion care.
And then there’s the fact that Mississippi has only one remaining abortion clinic, in Jackson, with 91 percent of patients living in counties that does not have a clinic. Reproductive health and rights think tank the Guttmacher Institute has found a direct relationship between the distance to be traveled to a clinic and the likelihood that a patient will pursue care, finding that a total ban in Mississippi would increase the average one-way distance between patients and the nearest clinic to 428 miles.
Advocates fear that if the ban in Dobbs is upheld, surrounding states in the South and Midwest will follow suit and test their own bans on abortion, with 12 states putting so-called “trigger bans” on the books to ban abortion care if Roe v. Wade is overturned. But most importantly, advocates say, is the disparate impact that this potential abortion ban, like all abortion bans, will have on patients least able to finance alternative means of in-clinic, in-state abortions.
The bans and the increasing scrutiny of those who seek abortion is creating a culture of desperation, Mariappuram says. “We’ve had youth say, like, ‘I’ll just get rid of it myself.’ We’ve also had youth express suicidal ideation because they’re pregnant and believe they can’t get the abortion,” Mariappuram says. “That’s what people are being pushed to.”
Nancy Northup, the president and CEO of Center for Reproductive Rights, which presented oral arguments to the Supreme Court on Wednesday morning, told Prism that during that until there’s a final decision in Dobbs, supporting abortion funds in Mississippi and in states where abortion access is extremely restricted is the best way to support patients. “The Medicaid program for example, or [people] who work for the federal government do not have abortion care as part of their health care system,” Northup said. “Abortion funds are a way to support, also [donating to] other groups that provide support and advocacy for abortion rights.”