Just before dawn Wednesday outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Derenda Hancock placed a hand-scribbled poster on a folding chair.
“We will not back down,” it read in bold red letters.
Then she put up another sign — “Hell has no fury like a woman despised” — and flopped onto the sidewalk.
“This is the hardest day,” said the 63-year-old volunteer, lighting a cigarette while a boombox played Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”
It was the last day of the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. The last day Hancock wrapped her skinny arm around a patient as she led her through the clinic’s glass doors to an abortion. On the last day, employees answered the phone – “Jackson Women’s Health. Can I help you?” – knowing that they could actually help.
Nicknamed “The Pink House” for its bubblegum-pink exterior, the clinic has long been the epicenter of the national fight over abortion and the last bastion of reproductive rights in this fiercely conservative state.
The clinic opened in 1995 when anti-abortion activists launched a violent intimidation campaign, and has steadfastly served women from across Mississippi and neighboring states. As of 2004, it has been the only abortion clinic in Mississippi.
Four years ago, she challenged a new Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, arguing that the new restrictions violated Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that guaranteed abortion rights. It was the lead plaintiff in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that led the Supreme Court to overthrow Roe on June 24.
Three days later, Mississippi’s attorney general upheld a 2007 trigger law that bans all abortions except in cases of rape or when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger. The Pink House had 10 days to perform abortions before the law went into effect.
Hancock, who co-founded the Pink House Defenders nearly 10 years ago, braced herself for the final showdown between anti-abortion activists who preached on the sidewalk and the security guards and volunteers in rainbow-striped vests who escorted the 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 in Mississippi today, waking up and knowing I have no control over my body.”
Mississippi is surrounded by Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee, red states that now ban abortion in all or most cases. The closest clinics for Mississippi women are now in Georgia and Florida — both places where further restrictions could apply. Then the next option would be Granite City, Illinois about 500 miles by car.
“Is it sad, yes,” Diane Derzis, the 68-year-old owner of the Jackson Clinic, said Wednesday, noting that phones rang non-stop and patients tried to make appointments. “Women in the South and Mississippi will no longer have direct access to medical care — that’s the saddest thing. But it’s also positive because we’re moving to a place where we can see other patients.”
Derzis, who has worked in abortion medicine for 46 years and has adopted the name “Abortion Queen,” said she plans to open a new clinic, Pink House West, in New Mexico next week. It will be more than 1,000 miles from Jackson.
Early Wednesday, about an hour after Hancock arrived at the clinic, anti-abortion activists set up folding chairs outside and put up signs that read, “WE PRAY FOR YOU.”
“I’m so sick I could throw up,” said Doug Lane, a 70-year-old pastor. “It’s terrible that they’re going to kill babies there today. These babies shouldn’t die. Roe vs. Wade is overturned.”
Lane was arrested for disturbing the peace outside the clinic on opening day 27 years ago – and he says the Lord has called him to be there ever since.
When the clinic’s executive director, Shannon Brewer, who has worked for the Pink House for more than 20 years, stepped out of a white SUV, attendants gathered around her in the parking lot and applauded.
“Turn to Jesus, Shannon!” shouted an anti-abortion protester. “Regret!”
The arrival of dr. Cheryl Hamlin, who has been traveling from Massachusetts for the past five years to perform abortions at the clinic, prompted further heckling.
“You’re a wicked, wicked woman and you need to come to God today,” said Allan Siders, a 36-year-old landscaper, who was holding a brown leather Holy Bible. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. No murderer will inherit the kingdom of God.”
An hour later, Hamlin emerged from the clinic.
“Repent! Repent!” Lane shouted through a megaphone as he tried to approach her. But his words were drowned out by abortion rights activists, who prevented him from holding signs reading “TRUST WOMEN TODAY” and “KEEP YOUR THEOLOGY FROM MY BIOLOGY”.
Someone in the crowd turned on a device that wailed like a police siren.
An escort leaned toward Hamlin. “Don’t let her see you cry,” he said.
“I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like to get on a plane to go home,” Hamlin said. “I’m blown away. I’m angry that these people don’t care about the women who go through this clinic.”
Hamlin said she’s worried about women in Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation with the highest infant mortality rate. Many residents, particularly black women in the impoverished rural Delta region, have already struggled to get to the Jackson Clinic. It seemed unlikely that they would be able to travel hundreds of miles.
But she said this is not the end. Their goal—improbable as it sounds—was to make Mississippi a blue state.
“People are like, ‘Oh, what do you want me to do?'” Hamlin said. “And I’m like, ‘Choose.'”
For decades, clinic staff and volunteers have struck a defiant note. Derzis’ first clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, was the target of a 1998 bombing that killed a security guard and seriously injured a nurse. She knew what she was getting into when she took over a clinic in Mississippi.
In the early 1980s, there were 14 abortion providers in Mississippi. But their numbers began to dwindle when the US Supreme Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision allowed state legislatures to introduce a barrage of abortion restrictions and anti-abortion activists increased their intimidation.
When the clinic was threatened with closure in 2013 after the state enacted new abortion regulations, Derzis painted the clinic Pepto-Bismol pink. The color faded over the years, but the clinic endured.
“This Clinic Stays Open,” a banner proclaimed over the years.
The mood of the Resistance did not change after Roe was put down.
“Although the Pink House Defenders will more or less lay down our torches, that doesn’t mean we’re done,” Hancock said at a news conference that day. “Stay tuned for the Jezebel rebellion.”
On Tuesday, lawyers for the clinic went to court to block the state’s so-called Trigger Act banning abortion, citing a 1998 Supreme Court ruling that “abortion is protected by the state constitution.” The judge denied the request.
As tensions built outside the clinic on the final day, a police SUV pulled up in the middle of the street. The escorts performed Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and tried to drown out the protesters’ megaphones.
The noise grew louder as a stream of women and girls drove into the clinic in sedans and SUVs with Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas license plates.
A woman clutching a blanket bowed her head as she was led past the yelling street preachers to the glass door.
“The Bible says don’t kill!” yelled one protester.
A clinic attendant held up a placard that read, “GOD SEEES HER OUT HERE EVERY DAY HARASSING WOMEN AND SHE IS NOT HAPPY.”
On Thursday, the clinic staff offers follow-up appointments for women who have already had an abortion. Soon, phones will be rerouted and women will be referred to clinics in Columbus, Georgia, and other states. About half of the Mississippi Clinic’s staff will relocate to the new clinic in New Mexico.
Hancock said the Pink House Defenders did not have the resources to help women exit the state.
“Today is the end,” she said.
Before leaving the clinic, she and the other volunteers took photos of each other and attached a series of messages to the spikes in the clinic’s fence.
“Thanks Pink House!” Hancock had scribbled with black marker. “For 27 years you were the light at the end of the tunnel. Although it is dark now, the fire continues to burn. Today they won. Tomorrow we will rise from the ashes.”
After all the protesters dispersed, a woman went to the pink house and placed two pink zinnias outside.
“One for the child I didn’t have to have and one for my sister who also had an abortion,” she said while wiping a tear from her cheek.
Erin, 43, who declined to give her last name, said she and her sister had an abortion at the clinic because their pregnancies posed a serious risk to their health. The clinic staff, she said, treated her with kindness and respect.
“A lot of women will die,” she said. “I want to show the workers who are leaving here how loved they are. How important they were to each of us.”
Just before nightfall, Hamlin left the clinic after cleaning out her locker for the last time. She had seen about 60 patients.
https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-07-07/the-last-abortion-clinic-in-mississippi-closes-its-doors The last abortion clinic in Mississippi closes its doors