Memoirs: Chantel Cluff as she fought to keep an abortion clinic open

Written by Carma Hassan

Three-quarters of the clinic was caked in blood and organs, herded alongside drums, balloons and beatific hymns. Twenty in the back, 15 in the front, she explained. Seventy-two years old, she was a missionary. For several months in the fall of 1969, she would spend a few days a week at Jackson Women’s Health Organization (JWHO), performing her duties at the abortion clinic in the Mississippi Delta.

Chantel Cluff

A sister of the Assemblies of God, Cluff traveled to the Mississippi Delta, in Arkansas and Mississippi, to work alongside local pastors who helped prevent the spread of pre-natal medicine and assisted with other challenges in the community. Cluff was even married to a pastor at one point, who worked as a liaison between JWHO and local churches in a fight to keep the clinic open.

Carma Hassan

For Cluff, these missionary endeavors came across as communities in crisis and she provided in-state comfort and services, thereby leading to her serving in the state she thought she had left behind. Since 1973, she had served in the same small community as Cee Love Graham, the patient who inspired the board of directors to close the JWHO, stating: “Instead of being able to walk into a hospital and have a child, a woman has to turn to the streets.”

After more than 20 years of advocacy efforts, Cluff knew she could not let the doors of the clinic fall once the board voted to shutter the facility. Cluff would launch Operation Save Our Clinic, and drive back and forth to Jackson each day and die on the trip. She would document and highlight the death toll of 42, in a time when some citizens of Jackson feared the violence of abortion clinics with regard to pro-life activists and protesters.

Carma Hassan

She would then lay down in the dirt to pass out the important medical information to the women coming for abortions and the friends and family members at the prayer camp, offering emotional support along the way. She would sustain herself with visits to the local grocery stores and “sheeling the chickens.”

Carma Hassan

Cluff laid down on the cement floor, trying to hold back tears, as she listened to the congregation swaying to the music, laughing and clapping, sobbing and weeping.

Just days prior, the board had voted to close the JWHO, and community members from all over the region had arrived to offer support and encouragement. The decision was made with the aim of keeping the clinic open until abortion could be performed safely in the state. However, their determination only led to the closure of the facility after an inordinate amount of money was spent by the director of the clinic, previously backed by the board.

Carma Hassan

Those who came to pay homage to the dedicated Cluff, started the chant of “Tradition over Socialism,” — a community chant throughout the years of voting to keep the clinic open.

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