What it's like to try to get an abortion in Mississippi

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Diane Derzis, the owner of the Jackson Women's Health Organization in Mississippi's capital, speaks with W. Kamau Bell about her work. For more about reproductive rights, watch "United Shades of America" on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Posted: May 18, 2019 11:40 AM
Updated: May 18, 2019 11:40 AM

When Amanda Furdge walked into a clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, in the spring of 2014, she knew exactly what she wanted: to confirm whether she was pregnant, and to have an abortion if she was.

Furdge was about 27 at the time, and she had an infant son from a relationship that she says was toxic and abusive. She wasn't positive that she was pregnant again, but as she waited in the clinic's dimly lit waiting room, she was 100% certain that she did not want to have a second child.

She'd found the facility through an ad in a local paper; it'd said something along the lines of, "Do you think you're pregnant? We can help."

Furdge recalls reading that and thinking it was "going to be like a Planned Parenthood," she says. But something was off.

There were religious pamphlets and tracts on display, and after a while, it became "obvious to me that this is not a medical facility," she says. "[But] in my mind, no matter what they say, I know what I'm here for."

What happened to Furdge next could be a case study of what it's like to try to terminate a pregnancy in a state like Mississippi that limits access to abortion. Although the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, some states have established so many legal hurdles that it's become too difficult for some women to access services.

More state restrictions are in the works. The most recent example is Missouri, which just passed a bill that would prohibit abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy. Missouri's legislation follows Alabama, which now has the most restrictive abortion law in the country, as well as laws in Ohio and Georgia that would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That can happen as early as six weeks, before a woman may even know that she's pregnant.

None of these laws are in effect yet, and they're likely to face challenges in court. That includes a "heartbeat bill" in Furdge's home state of Mississippi, which was signed into law in March.

'We didn't talk about sex'

Furdge had returned to Jackson in 2014 with her young son, Titan, to escape the relationship with his father in Chicago.

"I didn't want to leave," she says, "but I knew the only way to get out of that situation was to move."

Back in her childhood home, she enrolled in a program to become a medical assistant. She figured she'd study and give herself and her son some time to grow and recover before she returned to the Windy City.

"Everything was normal" and going according to plan, she says, until the day Furdge heard her instructor mention that women could breastfeed and still get pregnant -- something she'd thought couldn't happen. (As with other forms of birth control, the lactational amenorrhea method isn't foolproof.)

Furdge had been breastfeeding her son since he was born in July 2013. And before she left Chicago, she says, "I was in a precarious sexual situation with my child's father. I thought, 'I can't get pregnant; I'm breastfeeding, I'm not having a cycle.' ... Breastfeeding to me meant I wasn't ovulating."

In the spring of 2014, Furdge says, she was still nursing and still wasn't menstruating. After that class, she grew suspicious.

"Growing up, we weren't given sex education. I grew up Southern Baptist. My dad's a pastor; we didn't talk about sex," she says. "It was just a gut feeling; I didn't have any other reason to believe it."

So when she saw that newspaper ad offering help, it looked like the way to confirm what she suspected. The language in the ad was vague, but she "had been living in Chicago for seven years," she says. "I knew what the language of an abortion clinic might be, [and] I just put two and two together."

Furdge had arrived in Chicago in 2007, and that's where she "really just started exploring myself as a sexual being and becoming a woman," as she describes on CNN's "United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell." While she had used condoms and the pullout method as contraception, Furdge had two unplanned pregnancies and terminated both.

Back in Jackson, she thought her path to having an abortion would be similar to what she experienced earlier in Chicago.

But the clinic she'd found was like a crisis pregnancy center -- the kind of nonprofit organization whose purpose is to get women not to terminate a pregnancy and point them toward other options instead.

Furdge says she waited in that clinic for at least an hour before being given a pregnancy test, and then waited more before she was brought into a counseling session.

By that point, she was on edge; she wanted to get her test results, line up an abortion and go. What she got instead was a one-on-one conversation with an older woman who asked Furdge to produce a picture of baby Titan.

Then, the woman asked Furdge how she would feel if someone killed her child.

"I remember feeling something in my throat," Furdge says. "I was already exhausted. Maybe that's how they wear you down, with the waiting. I remember saying, 'I don't know what I would do.'

"And then she said: 'That's your baby. And you know what's in your stomach? That's your baby [too].'

And I thought, 'Wow. That's not what I came here for. This is not what I need right now.' When she said that, I just got quiet. ... Emotionally, now, I'm a wreck. I knew from past experiences that if I needed to [have an abortion], I could do it. And I shouldn't have to justify it, or talk about it, or anything. But she's sitting across from me like I owe her this, like we have a relationship or bond or something."

Furdge says she was undeterred. "When she was finished talking, I still said: 'So if I want to terminate this pregnancy, what do I need to do?' "

The woman told her she couldn't give that information. Furdge asked for her pregnancy verification and left.

'I love my children ... but I don't feel guilty'

She went on a research mission, searching for an actual abortion clinic. The state of Mississippi has only one: the Jackson Women's Health Organization, also known as "The Pink House."

"In my mind, I'm still in Chicago, where you call and make an appointment and that's it," Furdge says. But when she called the Pink House, she learned that she would have to come in for at least two appointments, because Mississippi has a mandatory counseling session and 24-hour waiting period before an abortion can be performed. And it wasn't like she could come in at any time; the clinic only sees patients on certain days of the week.

"I remember thinking, the clock is ticking. Every day that I'm still pregnant, I'm still pregnant. I knew I didn't want to have a late-term abortion, and I'm in Mississippi," Furdge says.

But within that one phone call, Furdge says she learned that she was too far along to receive their services.

"I said 'OK, well, I'm going to find somewhere else. Another state, or something else,' " Furdge says. "I felt like, I deserve to have control and autonomy over myself and my body."

She looked into going to Alabama, "but what deterred me was the cost," Furdge says. "I was still in school, and how was I going to get there? Nobody in my family was going to drive me to Alabama to get an abortion."

She even tried reaching out to Titan's father, the person she moved to get away from, for help. "I told him, 'I'm pregnant, and I don't want to have this baby,' " Furdge recalls. "And I remember him telling me 'no.' "

Furdge gave herself a week before she found an ob/gyn, a woman whom she says never judged her story. When Furdge worried that her deep depression during the pregnancy would somehow negatively impact the baby, she says, her doctor lovingly reassured her.

When her son was born in September 2014, perfectly healthy, she says she felt a wave of relief that her overwhelming sadness had not caused harm. She named him Mega.

"I love my children, and I'm glad I have them. But I don't feel guilty about terminating," Furdge says of her past pregnancies.

"It might sound harsh, but there's this misconception of why people have abortions or what they mean. And you have to think, like, if a woman feels like she has to go through these hoops -- and expose herself to these opinions and thoughts and ideas -- in her own best interest, how can you not respect that?"

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