This morning, Dr. Cheryl Hamlin walked past screaming protesters and protective barriers into the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. While the obstetrician-gynecologist saw patients, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in a case that would decide the fate of not only that clinic, but potentially Roe v. Wade itself and the status of abortion across the entire country.
Hamlin typically works at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, but she travels to Jackson, Mississippi, about once a month as part of a rotation out-of-state doctors who perform abortions that local doctors refuse, often for fear of harassment or the loss of local job opportunities. With the sound of protesters in the background, Hamlin joined Boston Public Radio from the Jackson clinic to talk about the stakes of the Supreme Court case and access to abortion in restrictive states.
The Supreme Court case heard today, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, regards a Mississippi law that would make most abortions illegal after 15 weeks, about two months earlier than allowed under Roe v. Wade. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where Hamlin works part-time, currently performs abortions up until 16 weeks.
“The law was clearly directed at us, nothing magical happens at 15 weeks,” Hamlin said of the case, which the Supreme Court is expected to rule on in June. “The point of it is to overturn Roe v. Wade, that really is the goal. It's not to ban abortions at 15 weeks.”
Hamlin explained that the majority of the abortions she performs occur in the first trimester, generally before 11 weeks. She said the people who come for abortions after that window — who the new law would affect most — tend to be her most vulnerable patients.
“Those are often the women that are the most disenfranchised,” she said. “They a lot of times are adolescents, actually.”
Mississippi law requires people seeking abortions to visit a provider twice, in-person, at least 24 hours apart. Hamlin said patients often make it to their first appointment but fail to come for their second on time, because many have to travel from far away and get time off work.
“Time goes by before they can get back again, and that probably describes the majority of people that come in between 15 and 16 weeks,” Hamlin said. “We've seen a bunch of patients from Texas … [who say] ‘I drove eight hours to get here, you're telling me I have to come back another day?’”
Sometimes, Hamlin said patients miss the cutoff because of financial concerns. Unlike Massachusetts, which expanded Medicaid and where insurance can often cover abortion, Mississippi patients are fully responsible for payment.
“No insurance pays for abortion care, so they're all coming in with their cash and their credit cards,” Hamlin said of her work in Mississippi.
Once patients make it to the Jackson clinic and can cover the cost of abortion, Mississippi law also requires Hamlin to tell her patients abortion can cause breast cancer, which is not the case. “I am able to immediately negate it ... I say, ‘I have to tell you that it causes breast cancer, but it doesn't,’” she said. “It's an outright lie.”
On Boston Public Radio, Hamlin recalled the stories of a few patients she has seen over the years that particularly highlighted for her the importance of abortion access.
“A young woman, when I asked about birth control, she said she was lesbian and that prompted her to go on to say that she was raped, and that's why she was there,” Hamlin said.
Another patient had originally wanted to keep her baby. “[Then] her husband beat her up, and she got scared and didn't feel like she could bring a child into that environment,” she said.
Walking in to the Jackson clinic, these patients face anti-abortion protesters, some of whom climb on ladders with megaphones to yell over black tarps that block the sight of the clinic’s entrance. “They call me all kinds of things: ‘baby killer,' 'mass murderer,’” Hamlin said. “There's protesters everywhere, but they're particularly vocal here.”
Hamlin could have chosen to only work at Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, where she spends the majority of the month seeing patients, but she said the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump served as a wake-up call for her to travel to perform care.
“It was just like a hammer in my head,” she said. “[I] felt like I needed to be more proactive ... as well as feeling like I didn't understand the rest of the country.”
“This is what I need to do,” she recalled after flying down to Mississippi for the first time. “This is it.”
Dr. Cheryl Hamlin is an obstetrician and gynecologist at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge.