Libby Rich danced on the steps of the Mississippi State Capitol one overcast and windy January morning. In her pink reflector vest draped over an oversized red flannel and gray sweatpants tucked into boots, she weaved defiantly between white men holding signs that called for the end of abortion access.

The all-male cast of characters sang, strummed a guitar, and shouted before a crowd of supporters who had come to Jackson, Mississippi for Operation Save America's annual leadership meeting.

The extremist group wants abortion outlawed, period. Operation Save America led protests in the 1990s in Kansas and targeted George Tiller and his clinic in Wichita where he performed abortions, some late-term. In 2009, Scott Roeder walked into Tiller's church and killed him with a shot to the face "to protect children."  Some suggest a connection between Roeder and an Operation Save America sub-group.

In his remarks, Rusty Lee Thomas, the national director of Operation Save America, made sweeping statements to also condemn sanctuary cities, marriage equality, and marijuana usage. As a proclaimed reverend, he engaged the crowd like a congregation, shouting a call-and-response.

"Most of the pro-life movement has treated abortion like a healthcare issue," he said into a microphone connected to a public-address system that echoed his message throughout the streets of downtown. "Brethren, is abortion a healthcare issue? Is it?"

"No!" the crowd yelled back.

Thomas doubled down on his specific mission in Mississippi—to get lawmakers to criminalize abortion and shut down state's last remaining abortion clinic, the Jackson Women's Health Organization, colloquially known as "The Pink House," or as  the "pink death pit" to Thomas and his crew.

"So, I'm going to conclude: Mississippi, ignore and defy Roe v. Wade, put the chain back on the beast, establish justice and end all abortion NOW, in Jesus name," he screamed.

This is the scene that made Rich want to dance. On the eve of the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, she had come to the Capitol with about three dozen other "Pink House Defenders," a group that bats away anti-abortion protesters and escorts women into the Jackson Women's Health Organization. The clinic's rosy exterior hardly reflects the struggle to remain in business as Mississippi's only remaining abortion clinic.

The Pink House Defenders, some of whom had traveled several states to show solidarity, dressed in colorful reflective vests bearing their title. They had to stay on the sidewalk in front of the Capitol grounds because they didn't have a permit to counter-protest.

Rich knows silence well. For most of her adult life, she carried a scarring secret that almost killed her and at the same time could have landed her in prison.

As the state flag bearing the Confederate emblem in its canton bent in the wind, something came over Rich.

"I didn't have a purpose, I didn't know how I was going to react, I just knew that I was not going to stand there—I couldn't," she said. She decided to confront the anti-abortion protestors. "So as I walked across the plaza I thought, 'Here we go.'"

As she swayed with her opponents, pissing on their parade as she put it, Rich quietly sent a message using American sign language.

"I signed you are such a bad person, God will never forgive you for this," she said. "You have no compassion. You have no love. You have no heart. You are anti-choice. You despise women."

Rich knows silence well. For most of her adult life, she carried a scarring secret that almost killed her and at the same time could have landed her in prison.

A few years before the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion, Rich got pregnant—twice. She carried her first child to term 50 years ago at the age of 19 in Alabama, where abortion was illegal. Deemed an unfit mother, she had to give her son up for adoption. Distraught and suicidal, Rich checked herself into a psychiatric ward. Upon release, she got a scholarship to go back to school under the condition that she see a designated psychiatrist—a man she says seduced and impregnated her, although she was on birth control.

The Jackson Women's Health Organization, also known as "The Pink House."
It is the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi. Photo courtesy of JWHO.

Back then, Alabama doctors would only perform therapeutic abortions when a mother's life or a fetus' viability was at risk. Three white male doctors turned her down, suggesting she should carry the baby to term and consider adoption.

But Rich couldn't deal with that anguish a second time, so she did her research. She would have had more options if she had more money to get to New York or a neighboring state that could do the procedure legally. She chose to go underground.

For $300, she went to a woman in North Birmingham. The woman boiled a pot of water attached to a tube. Rich laid down on an enamel table, spread her legs and let the woman insert the cylinder into her. The woman promised that in 24 hours, Rich would have aborted the fetus.

"What she didn't tell me, and I was not old enough to ask, was about the possible infection that might take my life," Rich said.

Two days later, a coworker found Libby incapacitated at home and rushed her to the hospital, but quickly left her—she didn't want to get in trouble herself.

The doctors knew what Rich had done, and as hey stood over her, they threatened to call the police. So she kept quiet, never admitting anything, as doctors pumped her with antibiotics.

When she finally seemed to be on the up and up, doctors delivered a crushing blow: Rich had an infection that caused such severe scarring on her uterus, she would be sterile for the rest of her life.

"I am terrified that we no longer have Roe v. Wade," Rich said. "And I cannot bear the thought of another woman seeking an illegal abortion."

Rich thanked the staff for saving her life. But as she left, her doctors said they had notified the police, leaving Rich in a state of paranoia that lasted for months.

It was the cruelest experience she had ever endured, she said. As she danced on the steps of the Capitol  she feared that Mississippi lawmakers would cause other women to experience the same trauma.

"I am terrified that we no longer have Roe v. Wade," Rich said. "And I cannot bear the thought of another woman seeking an illegal abortion."

Last week, Rich's fears were confirmed. Both the state Senate and House passed a "heartbeat bill" that would effectively ban abortion after six weeks––before many women even know they're pregnant. The chambers must now combine the two versions before sending to the governor. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said he would sign the measure, now the most restrictive anti-abortion legislation in the nation, into law.

The heartbeat bills are not without precedent. In the last two Mississippi Legislative sessions, lawmakers have sent clear signals that they want to make a state that comes in last place for virtually every measure of well-being rank first in anti-abortion legislation.

Last year, Bryant signed the Gestational Age Act,HB 1510. It outlawed abortions after 15-weeks, even in cases of rape or incest, even though the only remaining clinic in the state stops performing them at 20 weeks. For a matter of hours, Mississippi had the toughest abortion ban in the nation, until U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves signed a temporary restraining order to protect a woman scheduled to have an abortion the next day.

By November, Reeves issued a permanent and scathing ruling to throw out the 15-week ban. He condemned lawmakers for "pure gaslighting" by claiming an interest in protecting women's health while also refusing to expand Medicaid and ignoring maternal and infant mortality rates.

Signs outside of the Jackson Women's Health Organization. Photo courtesy of JWHO.

A second part of this lawsuit remained in Reeves' court––it addresses other systemic issues with abortion access such as abortion clinic fines and fees, the mandatory 24-hour waiting period between consultation and procedure, and the limited scope of only allowing medically licensed doctors to perform them.

And even his blunt ruling didn't end the matter of the  15-week ban.

Attorney General Jim Hood, the sole Democrat serving in statewide office,  threw his prosecutorial weight and state funding behind the 15-week ban in December, when he appealed Reeves' decision to the 5th Circuit, a federal appellate court covering Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Hood told the Associated Press that because the 5th Circuit had never reviewed a case involving a 15-week abortion ban,"…it is our duty to appeal this ruling."

While the 15-week ban is in limbo, the U.S. Supreme Court recently delivered a win for reproductive justice by blocking a Louisiana law that would have left the state with one doctor in one clinic able to perform abortions. Justice Brett Kavanaugh penned a dissent that bolstered a widespread concern that his ultimate aim is to overturn Roe v. Wade.

In fact, a Mississippi State Senator who supported the heartbeat bill invoked Kavanaugh during debate. According to conservative media outlet The Blaze, Democratic Sen. Derrick Simmons spoke against the bill, saying that it would likely go the way of the 15-week abortion ban which so far has cost the state $1.2 million because of Hood's decision to appeal Judge Reeves' ruling.

In response, Republican Sen. Joey Fillingane said that with Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, "These decisions may swing in a very different direction now."

Felicia Brown-Williams, Mississippi State Director at Planned Parenthood Southeast, Inc. is convinced that the heartbeat bill passed because legislators are up for re-election this year.

"… It is truly disturbing to see this group of largely men, and largely white men, making decisions that will impact women, and primarily women of color, in Mississippi."

"This is nothing but politics in an election year that is all this is. And it's on the backs of women," she told Scalawag.  "… It is truly disturbing to see this group of largely men, and largely white men, making decisions that will impact women, and primarily women of color, in Mississippi."

Electoral politics is likely playing a role in the fate of the 15-week abortion ban as well. A month before Hood announced he would appeal the case, he launched his campaign for Governor from the steps of the Chickasaw County Courthouse in his hometown of Houston, Mississippi. Gov. Phil Bryant will vacate the Governor's mansion 2020; Hood would be the first democratic governor since Ronnie Musgrove served from 2000-2004.

Hood openly chewed over his decision to run for most of 2018. Since the hot summer months, he had been telling reporters that he would not run unless his praying wife, Debbie, gave him the blessing to go forth.

Hood has gone on record to say that he does not believe in abortion. If he wins, he would fill the shoes of a governor who has spent his last two terms railing against abortion access and propounding racist falsehoods that cast the procedure as "black genocide" because black women make up the majority of people seeking abortions in Mississippi.

As the future of reproductive rights plays out in the halls of power, ordinary people are fighting the battle on the ground––in the streets and at abortion clinics.

Libby Rich told her story about her outlawed abortion under a tent set up at the Pink House for a barbecue in celebration of Roe v. Wade that took place a few hours after the January rally at the Capitol. Diane Derzis, who runs the center, embraced Rich as she spoke—the two have been close friends for years.

A cold front rolled in ahead of the showers forecasted for the next day, when the group would face off again with  Operation Save America members. This time, the confrontation took place at the Pink House clinic, where anti-abortion protestors gathered to hold "church at the gates of hell."

Pink House defenders arrived with children in tow. Women with sippy cups poking out of baby bags slung over their shoulders trekked up the hill to the Pink House where theyburned sage and played pop music by artists like Bruno Mars.

The anti-abortion cluster stood in the road and Rich, like many of the other defenders, got into their faces at times, paced the street at others. As the rain steadily fell, she started to dance again.

"I'm a pissed off woman," she said in passing.

Ko is a reporter and editor with a focus on justice and the criminal-legal system in the Deep South. She also writes and edits Scalawag's bi-weekly newsletter, pop justice. Ko is based in New Orleans, where she is always on the hunt for oysters, but will always consider Mississippi home.