The Last Abortion Clinic
  • home
  • watch online
  • abortion wars
  • shifting attitudes
  • map
  • discussion

terri herring


Herring is the president of Pro-Life Mississippi. The group, which is the state's most powerful pro-life organization, has helped pass at least 15 pro-life laws and helped close down five abortion clinics in Mississippi. The group's current target is the state's last abortion clinic, the Jackson Women's Health Organization. "[P]eople are faithful to be there when the doors are open, and it makes it very uncomfortable," Herring tells FRONTLINE. "And I think it should be uncomfortable to go in someplace and kill your unborn baby." Herring says the pro-life movement needs to make abortion socially unacceptable. "To me, [our] laws reflect our morals," she says. "… It's not OK for a black person to drink at a different water fountain. It's not OK to go to the back of the bus. Well, it's not OK to kill unborn babies. It's just not OK." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on May 18, 2005.

Describe for me… the pro-life environment here [in Mississippi].

The pro-life environment in Mississippi is obviously -- [it] is politically correct here to be pro-life, but it still doesn't make it easy, because in the South you don't talk about politics, religion, sex or death. And all four of those things have to do with abortion. So talking about abortion is always difficult. …

I know that you started doing this in 1986. Tell me about the environment then, and whether it's changed.

Actually in 1986, when I lobbied for parental consent, I went to the Capitol straight from my kitchen sink. The criteria for my becoming a lobbyist was we need young women of childbearing years, and I volunteered. So I went with several other young ladies who were also young mothers like I was, and I had never been to the State Capitol. I had never lobbied before. Luckily we had a mentor who had been lobbying who kind of showed us the ropes.

So believe it or not, in 1986, it was a very close vote in the Mississippi House to vote in favor of parental consent. And I think more than anything it was the fact that they were a little bit uncomfortable with whether or not it was OK to do that. But since that time on, even though it's been a battle every year, it's a battle which amazes me, because I'm sitting here saying, "We're a very pro-life state," and yet I can tell you, even cloning, OK, we [were] going to ban cloning in Mississippi's last legislative session. It was a battle. And so even though we're very pro-life, it's still very difficult to pass legislation.

You've been pretty successful.

We have. In the last 20 years we've passed 15 or 16 pro-life laws in Mississippi, but it's [a] very incremental, very small effort that we can put forth. And we ended up in court on our parental consent law. Actually, even though parental consent passed in 1986, it was tied up in court for seven long years.

And so we continually have seen that state laws are thwarted by the courts over and over again. The will of the people is not what's most important. It's what the courts say about the legislation. And even -- to me, we're such a nation of diametrically opposing views. [In] one sense your child cannot get a Tylenol at school. They can't get their ears pierced. They're not supposed to get a tattoo without a parent's consent, yet we're allowing them to get birth control and abortion, I guess because it's considered a means of birth control in the United States.

Who doesn't want to be pro-choice? We're Americans; we all want choices. And yet we're not looking at what that choice represents. We're not being honest.

We see that young women are allowed even for a very long time to go across state lines, have an abortion, and if she's bleeding or she's in trouble -- we had the young lady in California that died -- it's the parents' responsibility to pick up the pieces, even though they had no control over what their minor child was allowed to do. We don't do that in this nation on anything except abortion. …

[A woman I talked to], she's actually very pro-choice and she's very vocal about it. So I said to her, "Well, do you have any friends who are pro-choice?" and she said, "Well, I do, but they're afraid to say how they feel." Can you talk to me about that?

To use the term "pro-choice" in Mississippi or anywhere is not OK with any of us who are pro-life, because saying pro-choice insinuates that people are making an informed choice, and I don't believe across the board that women are making an informed choice. … Look at the pictures, have an honest debate, make sure that women know what they're doing before they have an abortion, and you will see the abortion rate drop. I don't believe we're doing women any favors by continuing to allow abortion on demand. I believe it hurts women.

I believe women regret their abortions. And even though I was married, I had my first child when I was only 19. It interrupted my education. I have yet to fulfill my education, but I have no regrets. And I think that women who have their children don't live with the regret of an abortion. If you have an abortion, you're the mother of a dead child for the rest of your life. …

I think that's the thing that drives women to the abortion clinics is that somehow it's just not OK to be pregnant if you're not prepared. And so we use the term that this is an unwanted pregnancy or an unplanned pregnancy, but unplanned pregnancies are still wonderful children. You know, my children weren't all planned; I don't think I was a planned pregnancy. How many people in America were not planned? And yet we're still hopefully honest and loving and great people, but we weren't planned in our parents' mind.

Talk to me about the fact that there's only one place in Mississippi to have an abortion.

I think that having only one abortion clinic in Mississippi looks as if abortion is not available anywhere else in Mississippi, which is not true, because we know just statistically that there are more abortions being performed than just at this one clinic. So our guess is that unless you perform more than 10 abortions per month, then statistically we don't know where the other abortions are taking place. So we know that they are taking place.

So there are other places to have an abortion in Mississippi, but our only labeled abortion clinic, the one that's left -- I believe the only reason that the others are not there is because people have persistently and continually said that we do not want abortion in Mississippi. And so when it's known that there's one there, people are faithful to be there when the doors are open, and it makes it very uncomfortable. And I think it should be uncomfortable to go in someplace and kill your unborn baby.

If it's comfortable, then that's what allows it to continue. So for us to make it uncomfortable for women, for the doctors, for the employees to go in and continue doing what they do, knowingly, willingly, willfully killing an unborn baby -- they do count the baby parts; they're required to do so. So they do know what they're doing. And that is a very difficult situation to be in, and so we don't allow it to continue.

When the national pro-life movement calls Mississippi "The Mississippi Miracle," what are they talking about?

Mississippi is very glad to be called "a Mississippi Miracle" in terms of what we have done to try to limit abortion in our state. Nationally, abortion on demand is very prevalent, and it's very politically correct, and so even though we have a better climate here, there is still that ongoing thing that says, "Roe v. Wade has allowed women to have an abortion."

And it's still socially acceptable to a certain limit. But there are people who have been faithful to continue to press and make people uncomfortable when they're going into an abortion clinic; make them stop and think before they have an abortion; put pressure on the abortionist and also his staff to think about what they're doing.

When we came to your office, the Pro-Life Mississippi office, right next door was an abortion clinic that had been shut down, and you said that you as an organization had intentionally moved in next door. Tell me about that as a strategy.

There was recently an abortion clinic that was closed in Mississippi, and our office had moved right behind the clinic so that we are there on a regular basis. We know when an ambulance shows up and hauls a woman off because she's been injured. There was one instance in Mississippi where a woman was sent with a bag of her baby's parts to our university medical center in Mississippi, and her baby's head was still inside her.

That is unacceptable in any medical situation. And it amazes me. You know, we want to call abortion a medical procedure, and yet a baby is a human life. It's not an organ; it's not something we remove. And when are we going to show an actual abortion on TV? We see liposuction. We see all types of surgery on TV, but we have yet to actually see an abortion.

So when women or men for that matter say that they're pro-choice, my question is: Have you seen what it means to be pro-choice? Have you seen the pictures; knowingly, deliberately studied what abortion actually does before you make a decision? It's like this intellectual thing, like if you're really, really smart, then you're pro-choice; you have to be really ignorant to be pro-life.

And I think honestly it's the opposite, because if you're a human life advocate, then in my mind I am being a voice for the unborn. The unborn have no vote. They have no voice. They will continue to die. They can't take to the streets like women did when they wanted the right to vote. They can't take to the streets like the black Americans did when they wanted their equal rights. So they will continue to die, I believe, until those who are born and those who can vote decide that we are going to have compassion on them. …

We have 40 million unborn babies. Could we … show a picture even of one aborted baby and not have people turn away, but actually have them look and actually see what abortion is? And I think Roe v. Wade circumvented that discussion. So taking it back to the states is the place that it belongs. Allowing the states and the people to actually study abortion and make an educated decision is what is going to turn abortion around in our nation.

When I tell people that Mississippi is the most conservative place, they've got really strict regulations and restrictions around abortion, I have to tell you that a lot of people have responded like you said. They've said, "Of course. It's the South. They're not educated. They don't know what they're doing down there. That's what they do." Respond to that. What do you make of that kind of comment?

Well, for one thing, the laws that have been passed, though I would love to say because I lobbied for them that, "Oh, we have just done so much to damage the abortion industry here." But the truth of the matter is, we still have legal abortion in Mississippi. We have parental consent. … You have informed consent with a 24-hour waiting period. Giving women information and waiting 24 hours, is that a huge impact on the abortion industry? I think the laws that we've passed are minimal. I mean, we have not outlawed abortion, so to me it's a very small beginning, but it is a start of what can be done in the states when they're allowed to pass legislation.

But we're still up against the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. But there was a time when the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott [v. Sanford] decision that slaves were the property of the person who owned them. This was a Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court has been wrong before. It's wrong now, and I believe historically we will look back in shame on this day. …

Do you think we can learn something from Mississippi across the country? Do you think [what happened in] Mississippi is going to happen in other states?

Mississippi has just now started to make incremental -- we started in 1986 with parental consent, but over the last several years, we are taking as much ground as the courts will allow. I would just think that many, many other states could follow in our footsteps and pass legislation. You need someone who is willing to go to the Capitol and lobby and spend the time.

The secret to our lobbying is very simple. We use the radio, Christian radio. We have access to the people, and when the people call, the legislature moves. We don't wine and dine. We are the voice of the people; we are the voice of the unborn. And that persistency is what has brought us to this place. But there are a lot of states that could do a lot more, I believe, to restrict abortion, and again, up until the point that the courts will allow.

Let's talk about [Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v.] Casey for a moment … and how that gave leeway to the states to regain their power.

Our informed consent law had just passed when the [Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v.] Casey decision came down. So what happened is the Casey decision allowed Mississippi to actually be the first state that had informed consent with a 24-hour waiting period, because ours was the first one to actually be enacted, even though other states had passed it before us. The 24-hour waiting period -- again, if you're going to have permanent sterilization, other things, there are other things that require 24-hour waiting period…

An unborn child is not an organ to be removed. It's called a medical procedure, and yet it's the only medical procedure that takes the life of another human being. So it is distinctly different in every way from any other medical procedure, and for it to even be treated equally, and in our nation not only [is it] not equal to other procedures, but actually you can break all the rules on abortion, because we're going to have abortion as a means of birth control no matter what, and that would have to change. …

Pre-Casey, … it was really this idea that abortion was a fundamental right of women in America. Post-Casey, … all the sudden the courts said actually, the states are going to decide what is an undue burden for a woman to get an abortion so it's not as if she can walk in and get an abortion any time. What do you say about that shift?

I think that Casey opened the door to the 24-hour waiting period, which was huge, [and to] informed consent, which at least made it clear that women deserved to have some information, and that it wasn't an "undue burden" to give women information or require them to wait 24 hours before something so serious that impacted their life and the life of their unborn child.

The undue burden is still very vague, so even though it opened the door, it also left us to [ask], "What's an undue burden?" I don't think it's an undue burden to carry a child for nine months. A pregnancy terminates itself after nine months; you don't have to terminate it. And the termination of a pregnancy is the birth of a miracle, a child. And in America we have the finances and we have the people who want to adopt these babies, so there's absolutely no reason to continue with abortion on demand. …

We talked to a couple of people who live in the Delta area, who are a little further away from Jackson so it's very hard from them to get to the abortion clinic here, and for whatever reason they couldn't get an abortion there. And the stories … [were] that the environment in these very poor communities that are far from Jackson are very similar to the pre-Roe environment. In other words … access to getting an abortion has really been restricted.

To say … we want to be sure that poor women can get their abortions, like we're doing them a favor by helping them kill their baby, is just not OK with me. It's not acceptable to make that to seem something so bad. …

And again, I was a young, poor, white woman and trying to go to college when I was pregnant with my first child. So I didn't live in the Delta, but I did not have the means at that time to completely take care of everything that I needed, and yet God made a way for me.

And so I think that the women in the Delta that are having their babies are -- they deserve our help and our support. … We don't feel bad that people in the Delta can't have an abortion. I think the answer is to help women and children, and help is not in the form of an abortion. …

Do you think that you will be able to close the Jackson clinic at some point?

One of our slogans for Pro-Life Mississippi is to make Mississippi the first abortion-free state in the nation, and we want to do that. That would be a great victory for us to see that as far as it is with us. You can only do what you can do in your own state, but our goal is to be a pro-life Mississippi and to be able to help build a pro-life America.

I still think the key to that is education. We don't know anything about the unborn child. The sonogram has been huge on educating America on what the unborn child looks like, the environment that it's in. And very few women still know that a baby's heart starts beating at 18 days or how quickly it has fingers and toes.

The development of an unborn child I think is part of the educational process that has to take place at a very young age. I was a high school student in Arizona, and I went to a large public school, and yet I can vividly remember in my school library they showed The Miracle of Life. And I sat in the library and was intrigued. I was in awe that they put a camera inside the womb and you could see the baby, and I think that's when I became pro-life. I could no longer look at a woman who was pregnant and not know what that baby looked like in there. …

Do you think it's just a matter of time that the Jackson clinic will be closed? Do you think that is going to happen?

Well, there's nothing we can do, in one sense, to close any abortion clinic. [We] are consistently trying to encourage women, trying to help them through their pregnancy through our crisis pregnancy centers, trying to help them have their unborn baby by providing medical care. So we rescue approximately 100 babies a year from being aborted at the abortion clinic.

But abortion is a huge industry, and it would be naive to think that even if that abortion clinic closed that abortion would end in Mississippi totally and completely, just as overturning Roe v. Wade is not going to end abortion on demand immediately in America. …

Do you think the way that you're working … in Mississippi has been a different model than in other states?

I think we have people who have been very thankful of the abortion clinics, and I know from my point of view I have gone to the Capitol and lobbied consistently for every piece of legislation that we could possibly pass, and we have been successful. Again, that is so far from where we really want to be that it's a small victory, and yet nationally we have all this attention, like we've done this huge thing.

But until abortion is allowed to be debated in general, I believe that the American public will continue to struggle with the issue. And Roe v. Wade circumvented that whole process so that it was easy for people to say, "I'm pro-choice," and never really look at the issue.

It's easy for us to understand women. It's easy for us to understand that it would be very difficult for a woman to follow through with a pregnancy at a time when maybe the pregnancy was quote "unwanted." But a pregnancy that's unwanted does not necessarily make for an unwanted child. And women embrace their children when they're born, and they don't have those regrets. …

We heard that some of the legislation that you were active in helping pass was legislation that targeted the abortion clinics and … forced them to close. Is that true?

Well, initially, when I first started lobbying in Mississippi, there were no laws on abortion. So where veterinary clinics for animals had regulations, the seven abortion clinics that were here at one time had no regulations. …

The pro-abortion side loves to talk about back-alley abortions. More women are dying every year in America today than they did the year before Roe v. Wade. Antibiotics have made a huge difference being able to save the lives of people, whether it's from an abortion or some other medical problems. But right now women are still dying from safe, legal abortion that is being done in some ratty abortion clinic. And we did help close down facilities that were not safe for women or children, and I think that was a good thing.

So regulating abortion clinics and not allowing them to continue to function without care for the women that were coming into them, I think that did help close down abortion clinics, made it less profitable when you actually have to take care of the patients that come through your front door. So in that sense, legislation has had an impact. Again, I'm just making abortion less profitable. If it's profitable, then it's going to continue. …

We don't leave them to secretly perform abortions without anyone knowing that they're there. So in a lot of ways we're shining a light on what we consider a very dark place, a very secret, a very sad place where babies are dying. And so in not allowing that to continue to happen in secret I think is huge, because most abortion facilities in Mississippi were not operating in a safe manner. And they were closed.

So, in other words, you tried to … make abortion clinics safer, and then because of the pressure of having to upgrade, they started to lose money and then they closed. Did you know that that was going to happen? What was the intent behind the regulations?

Well, any time we pass a law, our intentions are to try to save the lives of unborn children, to try to make women stop and think about what they're doing.

In a sense -- you know, this is hard to say in some ways. We want there to be an undue burden, because we believe abortion, the memory of the abortion [is an] undue burden that no woman should have to bear, so to make it harder for women to have an abortion, we believe it's in their best interest. So closing a clinic, making it more difficult for the doctors, in a sense making it more difficult for women who are seeking an abortion -- I have never had one of those women come up to me and say: "I couldn't get an abortion; it was horrible. And now I have this horrible child to take care of." It doesn't happen. It does not happen. Women do not regret their pregnancies and their babies. They regret their abortions. …

I believe that Roe v. Wade will come down when every woman who has had an abortion, and is ashamed and regrets that abortion and is still hurting from that abortion, speaks out about that abortion. And we're seeing that. There's groups -- there's one called Silent No More -- where women are coming out, and they're saying, "At the time I thought this was the best thing to do, but this was actually one of the worst things I've ever done in my whole life, and I so regret it, and I so still hurt over it." …

I wanted to ask you a question about some statistics I read … that 70 percent of the women who get abortions in Mississippi are black. What do you make of that statistic?

I think the abortion numbers actually in Mississippi for black and white are about equal, but at the abortion clinic, they're predominantly black. And I think part of that is because the doctor is black, and maybe white women have access to other doctors that are performing the abortions secretly.

And so that's my take on it. I don't think that the black community is necessarily more pro-abortion. Again, it's just that one clinic I think, that when we see women going there, they're predominantly African American. But that doesn't mean that white women are not having their abortions in Mississippi.

When you talk about them having secret abortions about with doctors, do you know who those doctors are?

Yeah, really we don't. If we did, then we would probably expose them in the sense that how would any of us feel who are pro-life to go to a doctor, an ob-gyn, who in one sense is delivering your baby, and in the other sense, his hands are stained with the blood of unborn children? I would not be OK with that.

So the doctors are possibly hiding that fact from their other patients, and I don't think that's right, because I think, again, women should have a choice in who they choose for their doctor, and one of those choices should be that I don't want to go to someone who is taking the lives of children in order to deliver my own child. …

So, here you are in Mississippi, you're going to start in Mississippi. Do you think you're going to go further than that?

My personal goal is to be instrumental in the overturn of Roe v. Wade and to be instrumental in ending abortion in my lifetime. I think of Martin Luther King and the fact that he died for his cause. He died before he saw the victory. I don't want to die before I see some significant victory for unborn children in the United States of America.

And so my goal in that sense is to continue to be a human life advocate, to start in Mississippi and to take it to the rest of the nation. And the best way I can -- for me, that's been legislatively. That's where I believe God's gifted me and called me to go to our State Capitol and to be a voice for the unborn. …

I believe that the other side has done a much better job of educating on the pro-choice side. And it sounds so good: I'm not pro-abortion; I'm not pro-life; I'm pro-choice. I mean, who doesn't want to be pro-choice? We're Americans; we all want choices. And yet we're not looking at what that choice represents. We're not being honest. We're not actually being very intelligent at all, because we're destroying our posterity.

[Of] the legislation you've been part of in Mississippi, what are you most proud of?

I really think that the parental consent law -- the very first law that we passed -- has probably one of the most significant impacts, because to me, the thought -- and I have three sons -- but the thought of anyone having a daughter go through something like this without their knowledge or consent is ridiculous. It's a ridiculous policy. It's ridiculous legally. …

The woman who used to run the organization you are president of was quoted in an Associated Press article … one of the things she said was that you've been pretty successful in Mississippi … and so her idea … was to start going to other places. Do you agree with that?

We want to start with Pro-Life Mississippi. And I do believe that we have been instrumental in passing legislation that has made it more difficult to have an abortion in Mississippi. I would think any of the Southern states could follow our lead and begin to do the same thing that we have been able to do here. But it's going to take an effort on behalf of many pro-life people that are working in all the different areas to make that happen. And so yes, we are planning to take it to the rest of the nation and try to create a pro-life America.

I think a lot of people get hung up on the laws. To me, the laws reflect our morals. What's legal is moral for many people, so to make abortion legal made it OK. And I think that we can make abortion socially unacceptable -- not to shame women, but just to say, "This is not OK." It's not OK for a black person to drink at a different water fountain. It's not OK to go to the back of the bus. Well, it's not OK to kill unborn babies. It's just not OK.

So if that attitude prevails, then I believe the laws will follow suit. So even though predominantly I've been involved legislatively, again, I believe ultimately it's winning the hearts and minds of the nation and stirring compassion for unborn babies.

How do you stir compassion for someone? You have to see the crisis that they're in. And we still haven't seen the pictures. We're waiting. The pro-life movement is waiting for someone to be bold enough to actually show the pictures. Let America look at the pictures before they decide if they're going to be pro-choice. …

In the late '80s and early '90s, it seemed like more of an extreme movement. And now, you guys have done a very good job of mainstreaming … Has that been a strategy on your part?

… Even when Roe v. Wade came down, most of the nation was pro-life, but nobody said anything. It's like you don't talk about sex; you don't talk about death; you don't talk about women's issues. I mean, you don't talk about going to your ob-gyn for an exam; you certainly don't talk about abortion. So, because it was never really talked about except in terms of allowing women the right to an abortion, I think what happened was you have a lack of discussion on the issue.

So as far as mainstream, I think that people who have actually taken the time to look at the issue and consider it -- people I think overwhelmingly would be pro-life, depending on how you phrase the question. You find that more and more people are very pro-life when they become educated. So, unlike probably what the other side thinks, I believe that if you're more educated on the issue, maybe not educated in general, but if you become more educated on the abortion issue, I believe you become more pro-life, not more pro-abortion. …

One of the things you mentioned was that it's been hard for Pro-Life Mississippi and the pro-life movement in the South to attract African-Americans into the movement. Why is that?

In the black community, there is a very pro-life element. There are a lot of very pro-life, very churchgoing African Americans who do not think abortion is the best thing. …

It has been hard to get anybody involved in the pro-life movement, and partly because it has been perceived as being very radical, even though I find [that] ironic, because how radical is it to try to protect unborn babies? It amazes me that that's anybody's perception. I don't feel like a radical. I feel that it would be a crime to not do that, that it would be horrible to not to try to protect unborn babies.

I think part of that perception came through the Operation Rescue, which were the demonstrations that started really shortly after I became involved in the '80s. You had people who were at the abortion clinics that were being arrested for trespassing.

I don't think the timing was good on that. I think that the concept within the pro-life movement was just like Rosa Parks had to get on that bus and refused to go to the back of the bus; that somehow if we went to the abortion clinics and refused to leave when asked to leave, that if we trespassed and said, "This is it; we're not going to allow this anymore," that somehow that would end the pro-abortion on demand.

It didn't happen. And I think it did alienate people. So I think we've had to backtrack from there and say: "We've got to do a lot more educating. We've got to do a lot more lobbying. We've got to litigate. We've got to do this legally, the best way that we can."

home + introduction + watch online + the abortion wars + shifting attitudes + interviews
map + related FRONTLINE: "abortion clinic" + discussion + teacher's guide + readings & links
producer's chat + tapes & transcript + press reaction + credits + privacy policy

posted nov. 8, 2005

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo copyright ©2005 corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation