Derenda Hancock arrived at Jackson Women’s Health Organization at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. For nine years, the 63-year-old has helped escort pregnant women to and from their cars as they seek care at Mississippi’s last abortion clinic. But within minutes of arriving in those pre-dawn hours, she knew the day was going to be among the most difficult yet.
A day earlier, the Supreme Court did what it had been predicted to do since early May, ruling 6-3 against the Mississippi clinic in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, shattering a bedrock of reproductive rights in America.
“Abortion presents a profound moral issue on which Americans hold sharply conflicting views,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the opening line of the majority opinion. Nowhere did that seem more true than outside the Jackson clinic, known for years as the Pink House, on Saturday morning.
Patients arrived after hours-long trips. Protesters on ladders peered over the black nine-foot-high fence and used bullhorns to plead with or condemn patients. Reporters and photographers milled about. One man idled his car in front of the entrance to the clinic’s parking lot, blocking incoming and outgoing traffic. A woman, who said she was looking for ways to volunteer at the clinic, pestered the patient escorts with questions.
Eventually, Hancock and the other so-called Pink House Defenders called upon one of three police officers nearby to intervene and help with traffic, which had slowed to a one-lane crawl along Fondren Place. But the police were only there as a private detail for a LGBT Pride event two blocks away and couldn’t help.
“I am glad they have that security. But in my head I can’t help but think, you know, as soon as this clinic closes, gay rights are next. Just so y’all understand where we are going here,” she said Monday.
In his concurrence to the Dobbs ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that the court should also consider revisiting Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2016 same-sex marriage case. And by 11 a.m., many of the anti-abortion protesters had indeed left the clinic and set up outside the Pride event.
“It’s easy to just ignore these people as just radicals in Mississippi. But this mentality is everywhere now. And what has happened here can happen anywhere. They came here first to get their training wheels off but they’ve exported this ideology to Washington, D.C., to Ohio,” said Kim Gibson, another longtime escort at the clinic.
Although Mississippi is one of 13 states that had a trigger law crafted to ban abortion almost immediately after Roe fell, its unique bureaucratic process creates a window between the day the ban is announced and the day it goes into effect. So while the state’s attorney general, Lynn Fitch, certified the ban Monday, abortions will be allowed at the Pink House through July 7.
“For the patients with appointments, it’s of course good that the process is slow. But for us, it honestly feels like a death march,” said Dale Gibson, another escort outside the clinic.
Fearing anti-abortion protesters will grow more emboldened as the end nears, the clinic’s owner, Diane Derzis, hired two private armed security guards. Derzis is no stranger to the extremism that the abortion debate foments. The first clinic she owned in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed by the Atlanta Olympic Games bomber, Eric Rudolph. One person was killed and another injured.
“We’ll be seeing women until the very end, even if they have to do what they’ve done so often, which is cut through this terrorism,” said Derzis in a press conference outside the clinic Friday.
The Jackson clinic has always worked within tight time constraints. Calendars and clocks abound. If a woman arrived for her first appointment at 10:34 a.m. then she could not have her procedure until 10:34 a.m. the next day. If a fetus was 16 weeks or more, the clinic could not serve the patient and she was forced to find a clinic in a less restrictive state. Doctors’ shifts had to be assigned months in advance so that flights could be scheduled, since they all live and work out of state.
But in 10 days, this dance with time will end.
Derzis and clinic director Shannon Brewer have been preparing for that day for months now. The leak of the court’s draft opinion in May set in motion a plan to open Pink House West, an abortion clinic in New Mexico. Brewer was at the clinic on Friday as Roe fell and addressed a crowd via Zoom on Friday afternoon.
“I’m not trying to focus on the hope that is completely gone. Because we’re still here. We’re still fighting. And we’ll just be fighting from a different place,” said Brewer, who has earned the named “Queen Warrior” among her staff for her stoicism and stamina. “I will continue to fight for women from wherever I am gonna be, because I know that this is what I was meant to do.”
For years, the Pink House has found a way to comply with wave after wave of regulation that crippled the state’s other two dozen clinics. It’s become a refuge for women across the South who cannot secure appointments or procedures closer to home.
“All I can think about is how my life would be now, if [my right to an abortion] was taken away from me before I was able to take that trip to the clinic. And anyone who needs one in the future. My God,” said a 28-year-old mother of two from Louisiana on Friday. She received a medical abortion at the clinic two weeks ago after not being able to schedule appointments in New Orleans or Baton Rouge.
She told the Globe then that her last two pregnancies had her struggling with postpartum depression and waves of suicidal thoughts. She had finally attained her dream of being accepted into a police academy when she found out she was pregnant again.
“Regardless of the law, there will be people who also can’t afford to physically, mentally, or financially have another baby and are going to be forced to bring them into a home of poverty and suffering and resentment,” she said in early June. “The need doesn’t go away even if the right does.”