Protesters, supporters look to the future on last day of legal abortion in Mississippi

Clinic escort Rose Kasrai leaves the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, July 6, 2022. The clinic must stop providing abortions after a judge refused to block the state’s trigger law from taking effect. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

JACKSON, Mississippi – When the last patient went inside Mississippi’s only abortion clinic on the final day of legal abortion in the state, escort Derenda Hancock packed up stray bottles of Coca-Cola and water next to the driveway she has guarded for nine years. Wearing aviator sunglasses that hid her eyes, she leaned silently against the pink stucco wall for a moment. Then she walked away.

The Jackson Women’s Health Organization provided abortions for the last time on Wednesday afternoon. Starting Thursday, Mississippi will permit abortions only in cases where the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life — a medically imprecise standard that may force doctors to wait for patients to deteriorate before providing care — or when the pregnant person reported a rape to law enforcement.

Abortion will be more restricted than at any point in state history except for about 15 years in the mid-20th century.

The clinic, which also offers contraceptives and other services, will likely close altogether. Director Shannon Brewer and a few staff members plan to move to New Mexico to open Pink House West.

The Pink House spent much of its existence fighting for its survival against laws and regulations designed to make it as difficult and complicated as possible to provide abortions in Mississippi. In the end, the facility at the heart of the case that overturned Roe was able to stay open longer than many others in the region of the country most hostile to abortion rights.

Since Texas banned almost all abortions last September, the clinic parking lot had regularly been crowded with Louisiana and Texas license plates. And for the last 10 days, it became an unlikely island of abortion access when other southeastern states halted the procedure almost immediately after the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

When Brewer arrived at work around 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday, the clinic escorts gathered in the parking lot. They applauded as she walked inside.

“That’s right, the hero of our age,” said John Busby, an anti-abortion protester.

“Turn to Jesus, Shannon! Repent,” shouted another frequent protester, Gabriel Olivier, who remained sitting in his camp chair across the street from the parking lot.

For the last four years, Busby has spent at least three days a week protesting at the Pink House. But he’s not satisfied with its closure.

He plans to travel to other states where abortion is still permitted, to preach and protest outside clinics there. And he wants to see Mississippi pass a “full abolishment” of abortion—no exceptions for rape or to protect the life of a pregnant person.

Cases where a pregnancy endangers the pregnant person’s life are “almost nonexistent,” he said. Between 1 and 2% of pregnancies – at least 350 pregnancies in Mississippi every year – implant outside the uterus and cannot be carried to term. They are always fatal for the fetus and unless treated can cause life-threatening bleeding. Busby doesn’t think abortion should be allowed in those cases.

“The baby either can’t be sustained because of an ectopic pregnancy, or it’s gonna, by a miracle of God, it’s gonna full term…What we do as a human race, we want to say, we know better than what God knows.”

As the first patients arrived before 10 a.m., Dr. Cheryl Hamlin, the Boston-based OB-GYN working her final three-day shift at the clinic, came outside to speak to reporters. Anti-abortion protesters chanted through megaphones while supporters of the clinic blew kazoos.

When Hamlin started working in Mississippi five years ago, inspired to do something after the election of President Donald Trump, she never expected she’d be at the clinic on its last day providing abortions.

“There will be women who will die because their OB/GYN or family doctor or whatever is afraid to treat them because they’re afraid of the implications,” she said. “‘It’s not quite life threatening yet. This may be only 50% life threatening. Or 75. Is that enough? Does it have to be 100%?’”

Sonnie Bane arrived around 9:30 Wednesday morning. She came to sit outside the clinic because the abortion she got there in late 2016 saved her life, she said. She was in an abusive relationship, and while “it wasn’t the easiest decision for me to make,” she’s never regretted it.

“I wouldn’t be the same person and I love who I am today,” she said.

Since the Court’s ruling in Dobbs, she’s spent most days sitting outside the clinic with a group. They’ve mostly gotten supportive honks from passers-by.

“I want someone to drive by that needs to see it,” she said.

Even with the clinic open in Mississippi, access was limited. The mandatory 24-hour waiting period between visits could force people to miss two days of work, especially if they lived far from Jackson. The state already had one of the lowest abortion rates in the country, and many Mississippians traveled out of state for abortions. Reproductive rights advocates say some people believed abortion was illegal already.

Now, people will have to travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion or order pills online—a practice which is prohibited by Mississippi law but which will likely be difficult for law enforcement to stop.

Advocates expect the closest clinic to Jackson will be in Carbondale, Ill., a more than six-hour drive away.

The abortion ban will disproportionately affect Black women in Mississippi, who get about three-quarters of all abortions in the state. Black women also face much greater risks during pregnancy: They are about three times likelier than white women in the state to die of a pregnancy-related complication.

Though southeastern abortion funds have vowed to keep helping patients pay for the procedure and travel expenses, they face legal uncertainty. The Yellowhammer Fund in neighboring Alabama has paused financial assistance for abortion while its lawyers assess whether the organization and patients could incur legal risks, deputy director Kelsea McLain said in an interview with Mississippi Today.

About 12 hours after the Court issued its ruling in Dobbs, she had to call a patient whose appointment was the next day to tell them Yellowhammer couldn’t help pay for the procedure.

“It’s become so accustomed to them that they run into barriers and obstacles that running into another one is not even that big a deal,” she said. “It’s expected. I don’t think it would have made it better, for people to lash out, curse me — but it just broke my heart even more that these people are depending on us. We were revoking that support, and they just understood.”

The Atlanta-based organization ARC-Southeast, which supports people across the South, including Mississippi, has not paused funding.

During the final days before Mississippi’s trigger ban took effect, the clinic escorts were exhausted. Hancock had started showing up at 4:30 a.m. to make sure she got there before the protesters.

“This last year has felt like the other eight put together,” she said.

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On Tuesday morning, she sat in a green camp chair next to the driveway, with a waist-high orange and white traffic cone next to her. Olivier, who had started referring to himself as her “media partner” came over.

“What would we be if there was no man here?” escort Kim Gibson said. “At peace.”

“Chaos,” Olivier retorted. “Men run the world. Even just the small amount of authority you’ve been given, look how terrible things have gotten.”

Coleman Boyd, such a frequent presence outside the Pink House that the security guards working there since the ruling have nicknamed him “Ringleader,” came over and started jostling the cone. He sang “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang.

The three security guards who have spent 10 hours a day outside the clinic since June 24 had dubbed the experience “interesting.” One of the anti-abortion protesters repeatedly referred to his “colored” wife over the loudspeaker, and another had told one of the guards, a Black man, that he hadn’t had a father in his life.

“It’s almost like babysitting little children,” said Keswic Farrar. “That’s both sides included. It’s amazing how much they know about each other. They spend so much time hating each other. … apparently everyone’s opinion is the right one.”

“How you gonna insult someone?” said another security guard, who wanted to be identified as KJ. “If your goal is to argue facts and things like that, you can’t resort to petty insults and then say, ‘I’m doing this ‘cause God loves you.’ That ain’t how that works.”

Before 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Gibson looked across the street from the parking lot and recognized 79-year-old Dr. Beverly McMillan. In 1975, McMillan started working at the state’s first freestanding abortion clinic.

“I hope you’re happy for what you have wrought here,” Gibson called to her. “Women dying and babies in trash cans.”

McMillan said that she grew up Catholic but was secular when she moved to Jackson. A year after she started working at the abortion clinic, she encountered Christ and returned to reading the Bible. Then, after performing an abortion, she saw a “perfectly formed little biceps.” It reminded her of her youngest son, a 4-year-old who liked to show off his arm muscle.

“I got this sadness,” she said. “I couldn’t do abortions any more.”

By 1980, she had gotten involved in a local pro-life organization. She has regularly prayed the rosary outside the Pink House since it opened. She understood why Gibson had shouted at her, she said, and she would pray for her, too.

Another demonstrator came over to talk.

“Are you the lady that Kim was hollering at earlier?” he asked. Yes, McMillan said.

“It’s a glorious day,” he said. “I just feel like, go ahead and yell all you want, you know, because it’s a great day.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Isabelle Taft, Mississippi Today
Isabelle Taft, Mississippi Today

Isabelle, an Atlanta native, covers health as part of Mississippi Today’s community health team. Prior to joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Biloxi Sun Herald and a Report for America corps member.

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