Roe v Wade

‘In some cases women are going to die’: Pink House Defenders fight to save Mississippi’s last abortion clinic

If Roe is scrapped, women in Mississippi will have to travel 1,000 miles to New Mexico for help, writes Andrew Buncombe in Jackson

<p>Derenda Hancock is among volunteers at Jackson Women’s Health Organisation who welcome patients</p>

Derenda Hancock is among volunteers at Jackson Women’s Health Organisation who welcome patients

It is known as the Pink House, and they are its defenders.

They welcome patients and shepherd them inside, often placing themselves between a woman and an anti-abortion protester denouncing her as a sinner who has ignored God’s words.

Yet, unlike at many if not most abortion clinics in the country, these volunteers also defend the core principles of the Pink House and the services it provides to women as the last remaining clinic of its kind in all of Mississippi.

Some of them are well versed in the Bible and are happy to swap verse for verse with the protesters. Mostly, they call on the protesters to respect the lives and dignity of the women they are shouting at.

Sometimes they’re less polite, telling someone who’s shouted “don’t murder” at a woman to “shut up”.

The decision to actively engage with the anti-abortion activists is central to what the defenders do: they believe that sitting passively for years allowed the other side to gain the advantage, literally taking over the streets and sidewalks with their loudhailers and posters containing “abortion porn”.

They say the failure to push back on the streets mirrored a passivity among the leadership of the pro-choice movement and a complacency among the two generations of women and men that came after Roe v Wade. It was a complacency, and a failure to fight, that was seized on by a very organised and well-funded religious right, which remained persistent in trying to overturn Roe. And if the Supreme Court rules in the way that a leaked draft suggests it will, Roe will be overturned and abortions in up to 30 states could become illegal overnight.

The struggle to save Mississippi's last abortion clinic

For Mississippi, a deeply conservative state with shocking levels of poverty, the scrapping of Roe, and the resultant closing of the Pink House, would be devastating, say the defenders. The owner of the Pink House, Diane Derzis, has said she plans to open a new facility in Albuquerque.

“People have no idea how bad it’s going to be. It’s going to override the healthcare systems that are in place now,” says one volunteer, Kim Gibson.

“Illinois will be probably one of the closest points for abortion access – Illinois, New Mexico, possibly North Carolina for a while.”

Gibson, 52, says people living in the so-called “progressive” states, such as New York or Washington, cannot afford to ignore what is happening.

“Why do you think they’re gonna stop with this?” she demands. “It just means they’ll concentrate their efforts on the states that are left. It’s generally biblical – that’s what they’re driving these laws [with]. And it works politically, because it’s pandering to the religious and is driven by fear.”

Kamala Harris slams 'outrageous' Oklahoma abortion ban

For pro-abortion activists in places such as Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, where services for newborn children and their mothers are very limited, the experience of Mississippi is closely watched.

The state already has some of the highest rates of poverty, with many people employed in low-paying jobs and not having healthcare.

It also has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality, and the highest level of infant mortality. Activists ask what the state will do to help what would presumably be an increase in the number of children being born if abortion is made illegal here.

And in Mississippi, as in other places, the issue of race can intersect with almost anything. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, whereas people of colour account for 44 per of the population, they constitute 81 per cent of women who have abortions.

The non-profit group March of Dimes says race is also a factor when it comes to measuring infant mortality: Black children are twice as likely to die as white children during the first year of their lives. Other studies show that women who are refused abortions are forced to endure far more financially impoverished lives than those who are able to access such services.

“Abortion restrictions are racist,” Cathy Torres, a manager with Frontera Fund, a Texas group that helps pay for abortions, told PBS News. “They directly impact people of colour, Black, brown, indigenous people… people who are trying to make ends meet.”

And it was in Mississippi that a well-funded and well-organised effort by the right took place to secure, in 2018, the passage of a law by the state legislature that effectively banned almost all abortions after 15 weeks.

Shannon Brewer is director of Jackson Women’s Health Organisation – the only clinic in the state to offer abortions

The owner of the Pink House sued the state and the law was subsequently put on hold by an appeals court.

Yet the legislation was drafted not just with the intention of restricting abortions in Mississippi. The 1973 Roe ruling said the constitution did not allow states to ban abortions before the foetus could survive outside the womb, a figure then determined to be around 28 weeks, but which experts say is now around 24 weeks.

By including the 15-week cut-off, anti-abortion activists knew that it was in contradiction with Roe and that, if its law survived, Roe would probably be set aside.

Emboldened by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, Mississippi took its case all the way to the top, and in September last year the court said it would hear the case, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation. (Dobbs refers to Thomas  Dobbs, Mississippi’s state health officer.)

Last month, a leaked draft of that case suggested the nation’s highest court would uphold the Mississippi law – but, more importantly, that it was likely to overturn Roe. This triggered outrage in the US and around the world, and celebration from those seeking to ban abortions.

Derenda Hancock, 63, is another defender of the Pink House, more properly known as the Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, which is not affiliated with Planned Parenthood or other large reproductive health organisations. Since 2004, it has been the sole clinic in the state offering abortions.

She says that for 10 years she and others have been “pushing back” against the protesters.

“By not pushing back, we give up the ground to them and that bullsh**,” she says. “We don’t scream. We’re not in their faces. But we were wrong to give them the sidewalks.”

In addition to the signs and loudhailers, sometimes the protesters will bring ladders that allow them to look over the barriers and shout at women and their companions as they enter the clinic.

She says the more strident engagement is similar to the tactics used by protesters in the 1960s and 1970s, whose sit-ins, including handcuffing themselves to railings and civil disobedience, helped to secure those rights.

A ‘pro-life’ activist waits for patients to arrive outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organisation

On a recent morning, as around half a dozen women appeared at the clinic for appointments with doctors – who are all from out of state and have to fly in – the dialogue between the protesters and the defenders went something like this:

Protester: “Don’t murder!”

Defender: “Shut up!”

Protester: “Don’t murder!”

Defender: “Don’t be an idiot!”

The volunteers say that in the weeks since the draft of the Roe decision was leaked, they have seen an uptick in out-of-town protesters apparently keen to snap selfies outside the Pink House before it is gone for ever. They say some protesters appear to make a living by travelling the country and live-streaming their protests outside abortion clinics while collecting donations online.

As it is, they tend to recognise their regular protesters, greeting several by name, and dividing them up into three groups: the street preachers, who often come with loudhailers; abolitionists, who tend to be men and believe abortion should be illegal without exception, and that women should be sent to jail; and “pro-life” incrementalists, who don’t shout at the patients, but rather try to persuade them not to have abortions by encouraging them to join their church and to ask for help for their new babies if they need it.

The pro-choice protesters are often women and come in the afternoons. Men make up the bulk of the other groups and come in the mornings.

Laura Duran, 75, says she’s been coming to protest outside the Pink House for ten years.

“The main reason is that I believe in ‘life’ and that the baby is live since the conception. We help the babies and the mothers with that they need,” she says.

Anti-abortion activist Laura Duran, of Pro-Life Mississippi, urges struggling women to ask for help to provide for their babies

Her giveaway bags contain flyers for a local “Pregnancy Centre” that counsels women not to have abortions, a sheet of abortion myth-busters and a packet of potato chips.

When it is pointed out that Mississippi’s child services are overburdened, she says people need to trust God.

Mississippi’s law was defended by its attorney general, Lynn Fitch, a Republican mother of three children, who cites her professional success, even with the benefit of a wealthy family, as evidence that women can have children as well as careers. Fitch’s office said she did not have time to speak with The Independent.

Yet she told the anti-abortion Eternal Word Television Network: “Think about this: the lives that will be touched, the babies that will be saved, the mothers that will get the chance to really redirect their lives.”

She added: “And they have all these opportunities that they didn’t have 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, professional women, they really wanted you to make a choice. Now you don’t have to. Now you have the opportunity to be whatever you want to be.”

Kim Gibson believes activists will target other states where abortion would still be legal after the scrapping of Roe

Outside the Pink House, Duran is replaced by Barbara Beavers and her husband, Jerry. The couple, in their seventies, say they’ve been involved in such protests for four decades. The Durans say they do not believe in sending women to jail, but that it should “not be legal to kill a baby”. They say they believe all life is sacred, but Beavers says he supports the death penalty is some cases.

“That’s not the same thing. That’s apples and oranges,” he says. “Those babies have not hurt anyone.”

The Pink House defenders say there has been more anxiety since the news was made public and that they feel a little more uneasy. They always worry that the clinic could be a target for violence, but they’ve not experienced anything like that.

Their greatest concern, they say, is what will happen to the women of Mississippi who require abortions and don’t have the means or wherewithal to get to New Mexico, or to obtain the tablets required for a medical abortion, which can bought on the internet.

“In the state of Mississippi, probably somewhere in the neighbourhood of 75 per cent of patients in the state who need abortions here won’t be able to get them. So one of two things will happen. Either they will be forced to have the child, it will be a forced birth, or they’re going to try to self-manage an abortion,” says Hancock.

“People are going to drink bleach. They’re going to throw themselves down a flight of stairs. [They’re] going to ask someone to punch them in the stomach. [They’re] gonna do whatever it takes to cause a miscarriage.”

She adds: “The result, in many cases, is that women are going to die.”

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