Mississippi’s Last Abortion Clinic, Captured

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Jackson Women's Health Organization, as shown in the powerful new documentary Jackson.Photo: Maisie Crow

While the Supreme Court is expected this month to rule on its most significant abortion rights case in over 20 years, one documentary premiering on Monday at the Los Angeles Film Festival shows exactly what’s at stake. The film Jackson tells the story of Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic, tracing the lives of three women on all sides of the issue: the abortion clinic’s director, a pro-life pregnancy-center director, and a poor, black single mother who is pregnant with her fifth child.

Directed by Maisie Crow with co-producer and editor Jamie Boyle and executive producers Barbara Ehrenreich, Johanna Hamilton, and Alissa Quart, the vérité-style documentary is an expansion of the Emmy-nominated short The Last Clinic, published by the Atavist magazine in 2013, and a National Magazine Award finalist. As Crow’s debut feature film, Jackson comes at a pivotal moment for reproductive rights: This month the Supreme Court is expected to rule in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt; the 2013 Texas TRAP law shuttered half of the state’s abortion clinics. Since 2010, 288 TRAP laws restricting abortion access have been passed throughout the U.S., meaning that the country is still moving toward becoming like Mississippi, one of five states with only one remaining abortion clinic (the others: Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming).

Mississippi has one abortion clinic and, according to Jackson, 38 known crisis pregnancy centers, which are often funded by pro-life groups. It is the poorest U.S. state, with abstinence-based sex education in public schools and one of the country’s highest teen pregnancy rates (a trend that predominantly affects women of color).

The documentary follows three Mississippi women. There is Shannon Brewer, director of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a divorced black woman who grew up poor outside Jackson, has six children, and started working at the abortion clinic 15 years ago as a scrub technician. April, a 24-year-old single black mother to four children aged 1, 2, 3, and 4 is pregnant with her fifth child; she drank Clorox to self-abort her first pregnancy at age 16. “I’ve got so much I want to be,” she says early in the film. But she was taught that abortion is wrong. She seeks help from the film’s third character, Barbara Beavers, the pro-life executive director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices.

Crow decided to make the film after reading a 2012 Jezebel article about a Mississippi TRAP law very similar to the Texas law now before the Supreme Court; it required abortion-care providers (read: at the state’s only abortion clinic) to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Crow flew to Jackson the next day, found the clinic, and asked to film a documentary, to which the clinic’s director, Brewer, said no, as she almost always does.

“I normally cannot deal with cameras and the people and all of this stuff when I’m trying to handle this,” Brewer said in an interview ahead of Jackson’s premiere. But Crow was persistent, hanging around the clinic for months with a still camera before Brewer agreed to wear a microphone. “There’s something different about her,” Brewer continued. “She took the time, whereas a lot of people come here and they’re in a rush to just get a story. She kept her word, she earned my trust.”

Crow and her team shot 700 hours of footage over three years for the 90-minute film, which captures the important day-to-day routine — anti-abortion protesters’ verbal abuse outside the clinic, abortion procedures in clinic rooms, and the pregnancy center’s religious-based counseling sessions — against the backdrop of national news stories and speeches by lawmakers like Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, who riles up a crowd that is overjoyed at the possibility of making Mississippi the nation’s first abortion-free state.

Because Crow was given incredible access and spent so much time with the women, she captures every crucial moment: She is with Brewer right after the clinic is vandalized, during her call with the FBI, and when she unexpectedly meets the wife of her son’s baseball coach, who works at the pro-life pregnancy center with Beavers. She is in April’s bedroom when she goes into labor at 4 a.m., her mother refuses to drive her to the hospital, and she’s forced to call an ambulance. Crow also pushes her characters in complicated ways, like when she asks Beavers, the pregnancy center director, if April should go on birth control after having her fifth child. Beavers cannot answer the question, even later when April brings up the idea herself. “We need someone to father all these babies,” Beavers says, rejecting the possibility while discouraging April from having sex, to which April replies, “We don’t need no father to all them babies, I am.” The film ends with a final note: April is currently pregnant with twins, who are due in September.

It is fitting that Crow, a South Texas native, made this film. She vividly recalls the shame she felt in a Planned Parenthood one day as a teenager, when her cheer-leading coach walked in while she waited to get birth control. She remembers a high-school teacher slapping Velcro gloves together during a sex-ed class, explaining each ripping apart is what happens to your heart after having sex again and again. The most challenging aspect of making the film was fundraising, she said. With grants from Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the NYSCA, she funded the project with most of her own money and slept on a clinic nurse’s couch for months before opting for motel rooms. An anonymous donor arrived weeks before Monday’s premiere to fund their finishing costs.

“For me it’s really important that people start to understand the disparities in access; the intersections of reproductive, economic, and racial justice; and what’s really happening down in Mississippi, what it feels like to be someone who is caught in that [abortion care] stigma,” Crow said in an interview. “If these pro-life-funded crisis pregnancy centers are now drastically outnumbering abortion clinics we need to know what they’re doing, how they’re operating, and why are there so many more of those than there are abortion clinics? … At the end of the day helping to limit unplanned, unwanted pregnancy is something that I think both sides can agree on.”

Brewer, who spoke with the Cut before flying out for the L.A. premiere, said she felt positive about the pending Supreme Court decision. “No matter what they’ve tried to do, every day I get to come in here, unlock these doors, and these women still get to come here,” she said. “Every day that you open the doors it’s like, Y’all didn’t win today — y’all did not win today.”

Click ahead to see stills from the film.