What It’s Like to Have an Abortion Denied by Dobbs
Lationna Halbert doesn’t like pickles. But one day, in July 2022, she was hit with an intense craving as she watched her boss eat one. The only other time she had craved pickles was four years prior, when she was pregnant with her son. When she indulged and ate one, she threw up. Lationna decided to take a pregnancy test just in case.
It was positive.
“I cried, I cried, I cried,” Lationna says. “It was a surprise. Lord, it was a surprise.” She later figured out she was three months along.
Lationna’s face, framed by hair that hangs in long, soft curls, is round and pretty. Her cocoa skin glows and her large eyes, hidden behind thick glasses, are the same golden shade. She doesn’t smile often, but when she does, it spreads across her whole face, revealing a tiny piercing above her front teeth. At 26, she already had a 4-year-old son, Royalty, tall and skinny with his mom’s coloring and wide eyes. Lationna wanted to give Royalty a sibling someday, so he would be less lonely. But not like this.
Before having another child, Lationna wanted to be married to her partner, Kendall; to have a steady job that paid well; to get a new car; to live in a house instead of an apartment; and for Royalty to be in a better school.
Instead, Lationna worked as an IT clerk at a nearby elementary school, doing things like creating attendance reports and report cards. She liked the job well enough; her coworkers and the students made it worthwhile. But Lationna only earned $8.50 an hour. Her monthly check went immediately to covering rent — $853 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in a complex of dozens of identical buildings in West Jackson, Miss. — plus the internet bill. She lived with Kendall and the two shared expenses. Kendall earned $18 an hour as a welder and detailed cars on the side, but the two still struggled to put money away for savings or emergencies. They couldn’t afford cable; after rent, Lationna barely had enough money to gas up her car.
Lationna hoped to move as soon as they could afford it. The drive to the apartment winds along a road so full of deep, wide potholes that drivers have to swerve into the oncoming lane to spare their tires. Jackson’s water treatment facility failed in August 2022, leaving the city without clean water for weeks. Problems bubbled up again late that December, all connected to Mississippi’s decades-long underfunding of critical infrastructure in the majority Black city.
Lationna dreamed of moving “somewhere that’s nice and quiet and peaceful.” Her ultimate hope was to leave for Dallas, where she thought she could give Royalty better opportunities. But she would have been happy to move to Clinton, a town just five minutes down the road, made up of tidy subdivisions with squat houses that all have driveways and yards. A sign at the edge of town seemed addressed to her: “You belong here.”
But moving even five minutes away costs money they didn’t have.
“I just wanted everything to be better than what it is now,” Lationna says. Kendall felt the same. “We were not ready to have a baby.”
Shortly after Lationna took the test, she tried to make an online appointment to get an abortion at Jackson Women’s Health — commonly known as the Pink House, nicknamed for its Pepto Bismol-colored outer walls. Since 2004, it was the only abortion clinic in Mississippi. She never heard back.
Just a month prior, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that originated in Lationna’s home state when the Pink House sued Mississippi over its 15-week abortion ban. Mississippi’s preexisting abortion ban trigger law went into effect automatically on July 7; the Pink House ceased operations the same day.
The evening after she tried to contact the Pink House, while watching the news at her mother’s house, Lationna saw a TV segment about Mississippi’s abortion ban. That’s when she realized, “Oh, that’s why they’re closed. They passed a law already, so I can’t do anything.”
Lationna was, she says, “stuck.”
Lationna and Kendall looked into traveling to another state, but they didn’t have the money. The best option they could find was a clinic in Philadelphia, where the procedure alone would cost around $700, not including the hundreds it would take to get there and back. In the confusing aftermath of the verdict and the new bans, Lationna also feared if she left the state to get an abortion, she’d be arrested upon her return. (Mississippi’s ban charges anyone who performs an abortion in the state with a felony, although officials have said they won’t prosecute people who seek abortions themselves.)
Instead, Lationna had her baby at the end of January. That makes her one of the first people to give birth after being unable to end a pregnancy because of the new abortion bans that have been passed or gone into effect in 14 states since the Dobbs decision. (Five other states have banned the procedure after early gestational limits.) After a half-century of recognizing a constitutional right to abortion — even if access was spotty to nonexistent in many places — the United States has entered a new era.
Lationna found herself at a particularly cruel nexus: about to undertake having a child she hadn’t planned for in a state that ranks at the bottom of the nation in terms of the support it offers pregnant people and new parents. Even with a job, a partner and a family support system, Mississippi’s abortion ban put Lationna at extreme risk of poverty. She would face the added costs of caring for another child with no extra resources to do so. And she would more than likely be forced to put her life goals on indefinite hold.
Lationna’s story is a glimpse of things to come, on a massive scale, in our new, post-Dobbs America, foreshadowing the economic harm as yet untold numbers of people will endure and the dreams a new generation will be forced to put aside.
Driven into desperation
Even before Mississippi’s trigger law went into effect in July 2022, Mississippians were no stranger to the need to travel out of state to get an abortion because of the state’s lack of clinics. Mississippi also instituted a mandatory waiting period for people in need of an abortion, which led many to miss work and need additional childcare to make appointments. Women who lived in poorer areas, according to a study by Kari White, associate professor of social work at the University of Texas, Austin, were especially likely to face barriers to access and end up getting abortions later in their pregnancies.
As always, “those who have” can access abortion more easily than “those who don’t,” says Diana Derzis, who owned the Pink House. “But at least women had an option.” Most of the clinic’s patients were women of color who were struggling financially and already had children, Derzis says. Many were there because they couldn’t afford to have another child.
That steady drumbeat of need kept up right until the Pink House closed in the summer of 2022. The clinic stayed open seven days a week in an attempt to serve as many people as it could. “We were seeing 40 and 50 patients a day,” Derzis says. “The phone was off the hook.”
The Dobbs decision has enabled not just Mississippi but all of the surrounding states to ban abortion. “Given both the high levels of economic need and inequities that we have already seen in Mississippi,” White says, “it really does seem that very few people will be able to travel someplace else to get abortion care.” After Dobbs, only about half the people nationwide who were blocked from accessing an abortion in their home states have traveled elsewhere.
For a preview of what that will mean in the wide swaths of the country that now have little to no abortion access, we can look at the landmark turn-away study by Diana Greene Foster, a demographer at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2008, she started following women who sought abortions in states that banned the procedure at certain gestational limits, comparing what life looked like for those who were able to obtain an abortion with those who were refused.
“The two groups started out the same,” Greene Foster notes. But over time, those who were turned away fared far worse. Six months later, they were nearly four times as likely to be living in poverty and more than three times as likely to not be working. Those who did work were less likely to be doing so full time. They were also more likely to drop out of school and less likely to graduate, and those who had aspirational life plans were far less likely to achieve them. Even five years later, the women who couldn’t obtain abortions were 78% more likely to be in debt and 81% more likely to be bankrupt, evicted, or have a tax lien against them.
It’s not just the women who suffer. Their previous children — 60% were already mothers — were more likely to live in poverty and struggle with developmental milestones. Most women who had wanted another child later in life, under different circumstances, didn’t go on to have another, because “when they have a child before they’re ready,” Greene Foster says, those better circumstances don’t arrive.
“Every area in which there was a difference, women who were denied an abortion fared worse than women who received it,” Greene Foster says — and they knew it. Greene Foster had initially asked her subjects why they wanted an abortion; years later, she found out: “Everything they were concerned about came true for the people who were denied.”
Other research has found that women living in states with what are known as TRAP laws — short for targeted restrictions on abortion providers, which make it harder for clinics to operate — were less likely to be able to switch jobs or find higher-paying work, perhaps because women forced to have children they aren’t ready for have fewer resources to tide them over while they look for better positions or go back to school.
TRAP laws have indirect impacts too, says Kate Bahn, who researched them as an economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Women unsure of whether they’ll be able to control when they have children might opt out of majors and careers that take a lot of time and work. The policy landscape “shapes how one plans for the future.”
Even if these states offered generous safety nets, however, they would never make up for the loss of autonomy people face when they can’t end unwanted pregnancies. “That’s the fundamental piece,” Bahn says. “Women need to be able to make choices for themselves to have economic opportunity and contribute to economic growth.”
Ready or not
Lationna never graduated from college. She was 21 when she got pregnant with Royalty, and then finishing school proved too much. Since then, she realized her real passion was in hair and makeup, helping others feel confident and powerful. “When you step out, you want to feel yourself, feel comfortable, can’t nobody touch you,” she says. “That’s how I want to make everybody feel.”
Even after Lationna started the school IT job, she did hair and makeup on the side, seeing clients at home to make extra money, charging $50 for makeup and $70 for hair — far less than what she could charge if she were licensed. In 2022, Lationna started making plans to get that license, calling around to cosmetology schools and looking into a program at her work that helps pay for education. She wanted to do “something I actually want to do and don’t mind getting up and doing it every day,” she says. She began dreaming of working for herself, even owning a salon.
But amid those plans, in spring 2022, she got pregnant. It happened during a remarkably short window: her hormonal birth control implant had expired, so she had it removed. That cost $300, even with health insurance, and she didn’t have enough money saved to get it replaced right away. Lationna was pregnant just a month later.
“I didn’t think I was going to get pregnant that fast,” she says.
Lationna has mixed feelings about abortion, but she is adamant that “it’s not my decision to make with anybody [else’s] body.” She wished Mississippi’s lawmakers felt the same. “I just hate that they [can] vote on it,” she says.
The states that have banned abortion are the same ones that do the least to help pregnant people and new parents make ends meet. Eight of the 14 states that now ban abortion also fail to ensure pregnant workers have the right to workplace accommodations. None have guaranteed paid maternity and paternity leave or paid sick days, and five have refused to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage for mothers in the first year after giving birth — an extremely critical period for parents. Adding to parents’ struggles to provide and care for their new kids, 10 states haven’t raised their minimum wages higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, six have refused to expand Medicaid to most low-income adults, and none give workers the right to humane scheduling practices.
“These policies cluster together in such harmful ways,” says Shaina Goodman, director for reproductive health and rights at the National Partnership for Women & Families.
Mississippi ranks dead last on all of these measures: It banned abortion while failing to guarantee paid family leave, paid sick days, pregnancy protections at work, scheduling rights and a higher minimum wage. It hasn’t expanded Medicaid, and only this March did it pass legislation extending postpartum Medicaid coverage for up to 12 months.
The outcomes for residents are grim. Mississippi has the highest overall and child poverty rates in the country, with more than a quarter of its children living in poverty. Its infant mortality rate also tops the list, and its maternal mortality rate is among the highest. Both outcomes are worse yet for Black Mississippians. Black babies in the state are twice as likely to die as white babies, and pregnant Black women are three times as likely to die as pregnant white women. The state also has the highest rates of preterm birth and low birthweights in the country.
“We want to tell people to have babies here,” says Sandra C. Melvin, chief executive officer of the Institute for the Advancement of Minority Health, “but when the babies get here, we don’t do the things we need to do to ensure they’re safe and healthy.”
With abortion banned, Mississippi is expecting at least 5,000 more babies to be born in the state each year.
“We just got to make it work”
Lationna’s first pregnancy, with Royalty, had gone smoothly. This time was harder. She had a lot of pelvic and back pain, which made it difficult to stay active. By December, she could no longer touch her feet and had trouble walking. It was hard to get out of bed in the morning and, even with a grace period to accommodate her pregnancy at the elementary school where she worked, she still had a hard time arriving before 8 a.m.
Lationna’s job didn’t offer any paid maternity leave — only paid sick days, and she had used all five of those, plus all of her six personal days, on prenatal appointments, along with the time Royalty was home sick with the flu for the entire week before Thanksgiving.
All she had was the federally mandated option of 12 weeks of unpaid leave. To avoid going entirely without income, Lationna planned to find a remote job she could do from home while watching the baby. Ideally, she could keep doing that rather than return to her school job. “I got to make ends meet, help his dad with the bills,” she said, and she sent out applications “left and right.”
Lationna got a bit of government help — $470 a month in food stamps and a voucher to cover Royalty’s $55-a-week after-school care — but Mississippi’s safety net is threadbare and hard to access. She never bothered to apply for cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Applications are overwhelmingly rejected — just 4% of eligible Mississippians receive it, and even then, the maximum is $260 a month for a family of three.
Her employer-provided health insurance wasn’t great, with copays higher than $100 per doctor’s appointment, so she tried not to make appointments. When she got pregnant, she was able to enroll in Medicaid, which covered all of her prenatal care without a copay.
At one point, Lationna had looked into trying to get a Section 8 rental voucher; she gave up when she realized how long the waitlist was — in Mississippi, an average of 8 to 10 years. She once managed to secure an apartment in a low-income complex in North Jackson, when Royalty was a toddler, but it had such severe black mold that his clothes, shoes and bedding were constantly covered with growths. The landlord refused to treat it, so Lationna was forced to move to their current market-rate apartment.
In December 2022, Lationna was still trying to get clothes, a car seat and a stroller for the coming baby. They didn’t have the money. “It is stressful,” she said at the time. “I am so terrified.”
But Lationna and Kendall found ways to mentally adjust to the idea of having a baby together. After they realized they couldn’t afford an out-of-state abortion, they had a long talk, and Lationna “had a coming to terms” in realizing “this baby’s still going to grow.” She prayed and she talked to her mother, who told her she had to face her responsibilities. She tried to see it as “just another blessing.”
“We just got to make things work,” she resolved.
On Christmas morning, as Royalty opened the presents laid out under their tree, Kendall handed Lationna a box with a ring inside, then got down on one knee. “I started crying,” Lationna said. “I didn’t think he wanted to.” But she also had hesitations: She’d wanted to get married after her family was financially stable, once they were living in a house. She said yes while planning to put the actual ceremony off until she could find a new, better paid job.
She was very clear that she didn’t ever want to get pregnant again. “I really want to have my tubes tied after this,” she said. “I’m done.”
Bringing baby home
On morning of January 30, Lationna’s baby was born: Kingsley, a 7-pound boy with a serious face and soft curls covering his head. In the end, the delivery went well, except for the fact that the hospital had no hot water — something that may or may not have been related to the ongoing water problems in Jackson and which meant she had to take an icy shower after the birth.
Lationna wasn’t able to get her tubes tied after delivery as she had wanted. Her doctor didn’t give her the paperwork ahead of the delivery, and then, at the hospital, she was talked out of it, she says, because she was told it wouldn’t be 100% effective. Instead, she was given the hormonal birth control implant she had before — the same one she’d been unable to replace just before she got pregnant.
Two days after Kingsley was born, Lationna brought him home. Despite being on the first floor, their apartment was dark like a basement unit because of the shades covering their single living room window. Still, Lationna didn’t sleep. Kingsley, like many newborns, slept all day and was awake all night. When we met in early March, there were dark circles under Lationna’s eyes.
Kendall was back to work as soon as Lationna and the baby left the hospital, working from 7:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night, plus his side hustle detailing cars on the weekends. He came home exhausted. Since Kendall had become the breadwinner, covering all of their bills while Lationna was on unpaid leave, Lationna felt obligated to take care of everything at home. “I’m going to let you have your sleep,” she told Kendall, and stayed up with the baby by herself all night.
After a day or two, Lationna started to feel depressed, something she never experienced after Royalty was born. She would “just cry, cry, cry for no reason,” she says. She mentioned it at her four-week doctor appointment, but she was told it was normal, so she tried to cope on her own.
The only time Lationna was able to really rest was in the morning, when she let Kingsley sleep on her and she drifted off; if she tried to put him down, he immediately started crying. Most of the day he slept silently on her body, nestled on her shoulder or curled against her forearm, tattooed with “Royalty” in big red lettering. She planned to get another tattoo with Kingsley’s name, eventually. Every time she helped Kingsley shift to a new sleeping position, she showered his plump cheeks with kisses.
Lationna’s mother came by in the evenings after work, but even with that help, Lationna chafed at her situation. Kendall argued he had it harder, working outside for long hours, but Lationna felt her situation — being stuck at home all day caring for a newborn by herself — was worse. “I wish I was a dad [rather] than a mom,” she said, “because they get to get up and leave the house whenever they want to instead of being here with the kids.” Lationna longed for that freedom — freedom she’d had when she only had Royalty. “I feel like I’m in a prison,” she said.
She also felt stuck in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable body. She longed to be able to exercise and “lose this mom weight,” she said. She feared falling back into depression if she couldn’t move her body. She worried that her face and neck skin had been darkened by pregnancy and wanted to buy new makeup to better cover it up. “When I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize myself anymore,” she said. “I just want to get my old body back. I want to get my old self back.”
Lationna told herself she had to suck it up. “I can’t complain, because I’m not providing. I can only sit here and just cope with it until I’m able to get back on my feet and get back to where I need to be at.” But she couldn’t get comfortable with the situation. “I really don’t like depending on anybody,” she says. “I’d rather have my own.
Barely, barely, barely
After Mississippi banned abortion, conservative lawmakers, including Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, vowed to offer more support for parents and babies. A study group was formed in the state Senate to consider legislation.
But most of the proposed bills this session, from tax credits for parents to more fiscal support for crisis pregnancy centers, failed. Out of 60, more than half had been rejected by early February. None advanced that would have helped parents access and afford childcare. Bills to ensure paid family leave and rights for pregnant workers, plus seven to increase the minimum wage, died without consideration.
Instead of finding more resources to help poor parents, Republican leaders want to use the state’s projected $3.9 billion budget surplus to entirely eliminate its income tax. That would erase a third of Mississippi’s revenue.
The one item the legislature accomplished this session on its post-Dobbs agenda was extending postpartum Medicaid coverage for 12 months. Previously, postpartum parents were kicked off after 60 days. The law goes into effect July 1.
It’s unclear if the law will allow parents like Lationna, whose 60 days ended March 31, to maintain Medicaid coverage. The state Medicaid department did not respond to In These Times’ request for information on whether people like her will be removed from the program before July.
Lationna never got a new job despite continuing her flurry of applications while home with Kingsley. Equipment she’d bought to work a remote position, including a monitor and headset, sat in the living room, left over from when she thought she had secured one that paid $15 an hour, only to realize she couldn’t swing the four-week unpaid training.
She was supposed to return to her school IT job March 24, before Kingsley would even be old enough to get the shots he needed to go to daycare. When she called the daycare she wanted in early March, it didn’t have any openings, and Lationna was told to call back the week before she returned to work.
Then there was the cost: $90 a week. Originally she had wanted to get a voucher, but Mississippi doesn’t make that easy. Before an unmarried mother can get a voucher, she has to cooperate with the Child Support division, which typically determines the paternity of the child and then orders child support payments from the father — no matter how involved he is with his children. The state then takes most of the money to pay itself back for benefits. If a mother doesn’t comply with that process for any reason, her application is automatically rejected. “It’s almost always a barrier,” said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative. Mississippi has also consistently left millions of dollars in federal funding for childcare unspent, such that only 10% of eligible children were served before the pandemic.
Lationna and Kendall decided not to go through the onerous child support process. “He hates the words ‘child support’ because he’s going to be there for his kids,” she says. “We just decided he wanted to pay out of pocket.” (They eventually decided to pay Lationna’s 80-year-old great aunt $50 a week to watch him for the time being.)
Kendall and Lationna were making ends meet — but just barely. Determined to stockpile enough money so the family could move somewhere new, Lationna had done some hair and makeup for clients — putting Kingsley in a swing, praying he wouldn’t wake up, and asking her clients to hold him if he did. She tried to put that money aside, and they planned to open a joint savings account, but as of March they hadn’t managed to save anything.
Securing the things Kingsley needed hadn’t been a huge financial burden yet. Lationna’s coworkers had bought her enough diapers and wipes to fill a closet and her family gave her clothes and gear at her baby shower. But by one month, Kingsley was already outgrowing his clothes, and Lationna knew she would have to go shopping soon. Friends and family tend to be generous when babies are first born, but that largesse typically disappears as babies get older. And the cost of caring for an extra child was only going to grow. While Lationna’s family hadn’t yet faced extreme consequences like homelessness or hunger, their budget was significantly constricted.
Lationna’s dream of going to cosmetology school was put on indefinite hold. “Me getting pregnant and just having two kids, it’s going to be too hard for me to do,” she said, staring down at Kingsley’s sleeping face as she sat on her couch in fuzzy pink slippers and a flowered hair bonnet. “That just threw everything out the window.”
Lationna’s is one of thousands of dreams that have been and will be deferred as people across the country are blocked from getting the abortions they need and are forced to give birth to and raise children they weren’t ready for. Before the Pink House was forced to close, says former owner Diana Derzis, “I was seeing women who were able to attain things they would not have been able to attain had they not had that option there.” But “when you take that away,” she continues, “you have removed an option for their futures to be brighter and better, and that of their children.”
This article was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a reporter in residence at the Omidyar Network and a contributing writer at The Nation.
Co-published with In These Times.