Mississippi’s last abortion clinic closes

Shortly before dawn on Wednesday, outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Derenda Hancock placed a hand-scribbled poster on a folding chair.

We will not retreat, it was written in bold red type.

Then she hung up another sign: “There is no rage in hell like a scorned woman” and plopped down on the pavement.

“This is the hardest day ever,” said the 63-year-old volunteer, lighting a cigarette as the radio played Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin.”

It was the last day of operation for the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. On the final day, Hancock wrapped her scrawny arm around the patient, leading her through the glass door of the abortion clinic. On the last day, phone calls were answered by employees of Jackson Women’s Health. May I help you? – Knowing that they can really help.

Nicknamed “Pink House” for its gum-pink exterior walls, the clinic has long been the epicenter of the national anti-abortion campaign and the last bastion of reproductive rights in this staunchly conservative state.

Opened in 1995 when anti-abortion activists launched a vicious campaign of intimidation, the clinic has consistently served women from across Mississippi and neighboring states. Since 2004, it has been the only abortion clinic in Mississippi.

Demonstrators with placards stand face to face in front of a pink building.  One of the signs reads:

Abortion rights and anti-abortion activists meet in front of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson, Mississippi, on July 6, 2022.

(Kasya Strek / For The Times)

Four years ago, he challenged a new Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, arguing that the new restrictions violated Roe v. Wade, 1973 Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing the right to abortion. It was the lead plaintiff in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that led the Supreme Court to flip row June 24.

Three days later, the Mississippi Attorney General approved the so-called trigger law of 2007, which bans all abortions except in cases of rape or when the pregnant woman’s life is in danger. Pink House had 10 days to get an abortion before the law went into effect.

Hancock, who co-founded the Pink House Defenders almost 10 years ago, stole herself for the final showdown between anti-abortion activists preaching on the sidewalk and guards and volunteers in striped vests escorting patients inside.

“The war will always go on, but this particular battle is over,” she said, adjusting her straw hat in the sweltering heat. “I can’t imagine being 25 or 30 today and waking up in Mississippi knowing I’m not in control of my body.”

The Mississippi is surrounded by the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. red states that now ban abortion in all or most cases. The nearest women’s clinics in Mississippi are now in Georgia as well as Florida – both places that can see more restrictions. Then the closest option would be Granite City, Illinois, about 500 miles by car.

“It’s sad, yes,” Diane Derzis, the 68-year-old owner of Jackson’s clinic, said Wednesday, noting that phones are ringing non-stop when patients try to make appointments. “Women of the South and Mississippi will no longer have direct access to health care – this is the saddest thing. But it’s also good because we’re moving forward to a place where we can see other patients.”

Derzis, who has worked in the abortion industry for 46 years and adopted the pseudonym “Queen of Abortions,” said she plans to open a new Pink House West clinic next week in New Mexico. It will be over 1000 miles from Jackson.

Early Wednesday morning, about an hour after Hancock arrived at the clinic, anti-abortion activists set up folding chairs outside and put up signs reading “WE ARE PRAYING FOR YOU.”

“I feel so bad I could throw up,” said Doug Lane, a 70-year-old pastor. “It is terrible that babies will be killed there today. These kids don’t have to die. Rowe vs. Wade is upside down.”

A man in a hat, separated by a sign, stands facing a woman holding a slotted spoon.

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion advocates meet outside a clinic known as the “Pink House” in Jackson, Mississippi, on July 6, 2022.

(Kasya Strek / For The Times)

Lane was arrested for disturbing the order outside the clinic on its opening day 27 years ago, and he said the Lord has called him to be there ever since.

When the clinic’s executive director, Shannon Brewer, who has worked at the Pink House for over 20 years, got out of the white SUV, her attendants gathered around her in the parking lot and applauded.

“Turn to Jesus, Shannon!” shouted an anti-abortion protester. “Repent!”

Arrival Dr. Sheryl Hamlin, who has been coming from Massachusetts for the past five years to get abortions at the clinic, has sparked new spats.

“You are a vicious, vicious woman, and today you need to come to God,” said Allan Siders, a 36-year-old landscape designer, clutching a brown leather Bible. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. No murderers will inherit the Kingdom of God.”

Hamlin left the clinic an hour later.

“Repent! Repent!” Lane yelled into a megaphone as he tried to approach her. But his words were silenced by abortion rights activists, who blocked him off with signs reading “TRUST WOMEN TODAY” and “KEEP YOUR THEOLOGY FROM MY BIOLOGY.”

Someone in the crowd turned on a device that sounded like a police siren.

The escort leaned toward Hamlin. “Don’t let them see you cry,” he said.

“I can’t wrap my head around what it’s like to get on a plane and go home,” Hamlin said. “I’m shocked. I’m angry that these people don’t care about the women who go to this clinic.”

Hamlin said she was worried about the women of Mississippi, the poorest state in the country with the highest infant mortality rate. Many residents, especially black women from the impoverished rural Delta, were already struggling to get to Jackson’s clinic. It seemed incredible that they could cover hundreds of miles.

But she said it wasn’t the end. Her goal – as unlikely as it sounds – was to make Mississippi a blue state.

“People say, ‘Oh, what should I do?'” Hamlin said. “And I like:“ Vote ”.

For decades, clinic staff and volunteers have set a defiant tone. Derzis’ first clinic in Birmingham, Alabama was the target of a bombing in 1998 that killed a security guard and badly injured a nurse. She knew what she was getting into when she took on the clinic in Mississippi.

In the early 1980s, there were 14 abortion providers in Mississippi. But their numbers began to dwindle when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey’s decision allowed state legislators to impose a series of restrictions on abortion, and anti-abortion protesters escalated the intimidation.

In 2013, when the clinic was threatened with closure after the government passed new abortion rules, Derzis painted the clinic pink with Pepto-Bismol. Over the years, the color faded, but the clinic remained.

“This clinic remains open,” the banner has read for years.

The mood of the resistance did not change after Rowe was shot down.

“Even though the Defenders of the Pink House will more or less lay down our torches, that doesn’t mean we’re done,” Hancock said at a press conference that day. “Stay with us for the Jezebel Rebellion.”

On Tuesday, the clinic’s lawyers filed a lawsuit to block the state’s so-called trigger law banning abortion, citing a 1998 Supreme Court ruling that “abortions are protected” by the state constitution. The judge denied the motion.

As tensions escalated outside the clinic on the last day, a police SUV pulled up in the middle of the street. The escort turned on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” in an attempt to drown out the protesters’ megaphones.

The noise grew louder as a stream of women and girls drove up to the clinic in sedans and SUVs with Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas license plates.

A woman clutching a blanket bowed her head as she was ushered past roaring street preachers to the glass door.

“The Bible says, Thou shalt not kill!” shouted the protester.

A woman holds a sign that says

Faceoff outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization on July 6, 2022, the last day a clinic in Mississippi performed abortions.

(Kasya Strek / For The Times)

The escort at the clinic was holding a banner: “GOD SEE THAT YOU HAVE HAD WOMEN HERE EVERY DAY AND SHE IS NOT HAPPY.”

On Thursday, clinic staff will offer repeat appointments for women who have already had an abortion. Soon phones will be turned off and women will be referred to clinics in Columbus, Georgia, and other states. About half of the staff at the Mississippi clinic will move to a new clinic in New Mexico.

Hancock said the Pink House Defenders don’t have the resources to help women move out of state.

“Today is the end,” she said.

Before leaving the clinic, she and other volunteers took pictures of each other and posted a series of messages on the clinic’s fence spikes.

“Thank you Pink House!” Hancock scribbled with black marker. “For 27 years you have been the light at the end of the tunnel. Although it is now dark, the fire continues to burn. Today they won. Tomorrow we will rise from the ashes.”

After all the protesters dispersed, a woman approached the Pink House and placed two pink zinnias outside.

“One for the baby I didn’t need to have and one for my sister who also had an abortion,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek.

Erin, 43, who declined to give her last name, said she and her sister had abortions at the clinic because their pregnancy posed a serious risk to their health. According to her, the clinic staff treated her with kindness and respect.

“Many women will die,” she said. “I want to show the workers leaving here how much they are loved. How much they meant to each of us.”

Just before sunset, Hamlyn walked out of the clinic with a bag of scrubs in her hands after cleaning out her locker for the last time. She examined about 60 patients.