JACKSON, Miss.— While street preachers boomed warnings of hellfire nearby, a throng of reporters surrounded Pink House Defender Kim Gibson in the Jackson Women’s Health Clinic’s driveway on June 24, 2022. Minutes earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected the clinic’s attempt to block a 15-week Mississippi abortion ban, overturning Roe v. Wade and dooming the Pink House to close.
“What’s your reaction to the ruling from the Supreme Court?” a male reporter asked.
“I’m thrilled, can’t you tell?” she said, narrowing her eyes behind a pair of Ray-Bans. “… What do you think? We’re looking at suffering and death, we are looking at suffering and death. How do you think we should feel?”
Gibson is not alone in those concerns. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization late last month, the Dayton Daily News reported that a cancer patient who needed an abortion before she could start chemotherapy treatments had to travel to Indiana to get an abortion—even though Ohio’s six-week abortion ban allows an exception for “medical necessity” or a “medical emergency.”
In 2007, a bipartisan majority of Mississippi Democrats and Republicans passed a “trigger law” that would ban nearly all abortions in Mississippi at any stage with exceptions only for “cases where necessary for the preservation of the mother’s life or where the pregnancy was caused by rape” and reported to law enforcement.
On June 27, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch certified her judgment that Roe v. Wade had been overturned with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office, setting the trigger law to take effect on July 7. A state judge declined the clinic’s request to block it.
‘Women Will Die’
Dr. Cheryl Hamlin, who provided abortion care at the Pink House until Mississippi law forced the state’s only abortion clinic to close on July 7, told the Mississippi Free Press that she believes the state’s exceptions are too vague and will lead to cases like the one involving the cancer patient in Ohio and “women will die.”
“It will happen because what does not look like a life-threatening condition today could rapidly devolve into one if the local OB-GYNs are now afraid to do the right thing until it really becomes dire,” she said. “That’s what happened in Ireland that caused them to get their abortion rights.”
She was referring to the death of 31-year-old Dr. Savita Halappanavar, a dentist who died of sepsis in Galway, Ireland, in 2012 after doctors refused to provide her an abortion even though she was in severe pain and a miscarriage was inevitable. Despite the fact that the country’s law allowed abortions to save a pregnant woman’s life, doctors, fearing prosecution, opted against providing the abortion because a fetal heartrate was still detectable, and they did not see evidence of an immediate threat to her life.
The case galvanized support for liberalizing the country’s abortion laws, and two-thirds of the Irish people voted to legalize it in a 2018 referendum. Dr. Hamlin said she expects to see cases like Halappanavar’s in Mississippi and other states with severe abortion restrictions.
“There will be women who will die because their OB-GYN or family doctor is afraid to treat them because they’re afraid of the implications,” Hamlin said. “‘Well, it’s not fully life-threatening, yet.’ ‘It’s maybe only 50% life-threatening, or maybe 75%. Is that enough?’ ‘Does it have to be 100%?’ So yes, it will happen.”
On Monday, President Joe Biden announced an executive order aimed at alleviating those concerns. Under a clarification of existing U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines, physicians at hospitals that receive Medicare funds must provide abortion care if they “believe that a pregnant patient presenting at an emergency department is experiencing an emergency medical condition … and that abortion is the stabilizing treatment necessary to resolve that condition.”
Such requirements already exist under current law, though, critics have noted. NPR reported on Tuesday that the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office dismissed the order, pointing out that “Mississippi’s law already makes an exception for preservation of the mother’s life” and saying that Biden’s announcement “is about nothing more than maintaining the false narrative that women’s lives are in danger in order to appease his base.”
Dr. Ghazaleh Moayedi, an OB-GYN and abortion provider in Texas, also criticized Biden’s order in a tweet Monday, noting that federal guidelines vaguely define an emergency as something that could cause “serious impairment to bodily functions.” The HHS clarifications, she tweeted, “don’t change our situation” in Texas. “These definitions are too broad to save lives.”
‘Won’t Back Down’
In the minutes and hours after the Dobbs ruling on June 24, clinic escorts and defenders at the Pink House continued to help guide patients past the anti-abortion protesters into the clinic parking lot. As they did so, the volunteers blasted Bon Jovi’s “I Won’t Back Down” over a loudspeaker to drown out street preacher Allen Sliders’ wails of hellfire and brimstone.
But within half an hour after the ruling, several anti-abortion protesters abandoned their usual post at the clinic gates and walked downhill to the end of the road to intercept incoming traffic, where they began telling would-be patients that Roe v. Wade had been overturned and the clinic was no longer seeing patients.
That was not true, yet, though; the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed the law banning abortions after 15 weeks to take effect, but the trigger law banning nearly all abortions at any stage would not become effective until 10 days after the attorney general formally certified it.
As she caught sight of the three men successfully deterring cars from driving up to the clinic on June 24, escort Ren Allen marched off toward the mischief, shouting at the men who returned her anger with proclamations that abortion was no longer legal.
After Pink House Defenders coordinator Derenda Hancock arrived at the site of the commotion, Allen retreated, but she, Gibson and several other escorts returned to the street corner minutes later holding up signs that read, “This Clinic Is Open.” With the Pink House’s days numbered, the clinic’s supporters believed it was vital to ensure the state’s only abortion clinic saw as many patients as possible while they still could.
Later that morning, two of the anti-abortion activists, Gabriel Olivier and E.C. Smith, told the Mississippi Free Press that they had successfully turned away about half a dozens patients by telling them about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.
For decades, evangelical Christians and Catholics have primarily led the charge to overturn Roe v. Wade. A right-wing Christian legal organization tied to Christian dominionists, the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, drafted the abortion ban at the center of the Dobbs case with the goal of getting Mississippi to pass the law and forcing the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade. With Trump’s additions to the nation’s high court, the gambit paid off.
On July 8, Rolling Stone reported that an anti-abortion activist who wrote a brief that U.S. Supreme Court’s majority cited in its Dobbs decision bragged that she had prayed with several of the justices before they rendered their decision.
‘Cursed Before God’
Eight days after the Dobbs decision, on Saturday, July 2, 2022, tears streamed down anti-abortion activist Coleman Boyd’s face as he stood outside the front of the clinic, bemoaning the fact that the it was still open and seeing patients at a rapid clip.
“I grieve more than I’ve ever grieved because the church is celebrating this weekend and babies are being murdered right before me in greater numbers than ever,” he moaned to a mostly white crowd of evangelicals who had gathered across the street next to the Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel.
In the same spot minutes earlier, an elderly man with an acoustic guitar named Butch (who did not share his last name) strummed and sang, “Where have all our little children gone? They’ve been aborted, every one.” His sister, Diana Hager, swayed in the background, gazing heavenward and occasionally raising her hands to God.
“We decree and declare that not only is the building going to be removed and thrown into a dump, but the very dirt will not be used. The dirt of this place is cursed before God, the innocent blood that has been shed here,” Butch told the streetside congregation. “This ground is unholy, but where you stand is holy. … This place is already closed, this is just the last gasp.”
At the entrance to the clinic driveway, escorts and patients got a temporary reprieve as several of the street preachers there found themselves distracted and arguing with Madison Gass, a young self-described “pro-life” activist from Jones County. Shouting at patients and calling them murderers would not succeed at converting them or deterring them from getting abortions, she told Rankin County street preacher Bryan Peden.
The conversation quickly devolved into a theological argument over the merits of Gass’ Calvinism until Gabriel Olivier interrupted it, telling Peden that he should not debate theology with a woman, but discuss the matter with her male “spiritual head” instead.
“These men are a problem,” Gass, trembling, told this reporter immediately after the exchange. The hellfire and brimstone preachers, she said, made it impossible for her to have any meaningful exchange with women seeking abortions. “No woman that’s going through a hard time wants to talk to men right now—especially not men yelling at them.”
She left carrying a cardboard box in her arms with the words, “Bibles For Kingdom Seekers,” written on the side in black permanent marker.
‘Empowered To Keep Fighting’
The clinic defenders and escorts broke out in applause outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization on July 6 as Dr. Cheryl Hamlin arrived for her final shift. The doctor lives in Massachusetts, but has traveled to Mississippi for the past five years to see patients at the Pink House.
While many abortion doctors have shied away from the press, either out of fear for their safety or future job projects, Hamlin said that over the past few months, she has felt like it was increasingly important for her to speak openly. She will continue working in Massachusetts and plans to provide services at The Pink House West, a clinic that the Jackson Women’s Health Organization’s owner is working to open in New Mexico.
“I’ll do what I always do,” she told the Mississippi Free Press while standing outside the clinic on the corner of Fondren Place and North State Street. “I’m empowered to keep fighting and I’ve never been that political of a person, but I guess I have to start, and I have to figure out what that means.”
Hamlin told reporters that she knows “Mississippi makes it hard for women and people of color to vote,” but that she sees it as one of the most important things residents can do to respond to the downfall of abortion access in much of the country, including most of the South.
“You hear stuff like, ‘We should boycott the South.’ But the reality is, most of the people here are really cool. I’ve met so many wonderful people here. I love this place. I can’t imagine not coming back here. It’s just a few really jerky politicians and a few white supremacists and a few idiot evangelicals that don’t know what they’re talking about that have turned this into a ‘shithole state,’” she said, making air quotes. “And it is for a lot of reasons, but the people that live here are wonderful, and there are wonderful things to do and beautiful places to go.”
The patients Hamlin saw in the clinic’s final days, she said, ranged from fearful and angry to unaware of the “gravity” of the Dobbs decision. Many of the patients the clinic saw in recent weeks and months came from out of state, she said, with patients driving to Jackson from Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and other states. In some cases, the backlog had nearly forced the clinic to cancel appointments, she said, because it risked pushing some beyond the point of pregnancy that the clinic provided abortions.
‘It’s Over, Cheryl’
As Dr. Hamlin spoke with reporters, anti-abortion street preacher Doug Lane marched up and down the sidewalk, yelling at Hamlin through a megaphone while supporters of the clinic attempted to block his view with signs and drown him out by blowing party streamers and shouting.
“It’s over, Cheryl. You won’t be able to kill babies here any more, Cheryl,” cried Lane, who serves as the director of Pastors For Life Mississippi.
For months leading up to the clinic’s closure, Lane arrived and shouted at women, telling them he would purchase their children if they would carry their pregnancies to term.
“I will buy your baby for $10,000. But it’s negotiable,” he told one woman as she exited her car. She did not respond.
Several months ago, though, Lane was only offering patients $3,500 to “buy their babies” (with no takers).
“With inflation and everything else, I thought we ought to go up,” he told the Mississippi Free Press. “It doesn’t matter, money’s not the point, I would do it in a heartbeat.”
Asked what he would do if a patient took him up on the offer, Lane already had an idea in mind.
“I’ve got four kids and 12 grandkids. Any of my kids would love to have a child to adopt,” he said.
Lane rejected the characterization of a sign the escorts posted up outside the clinic that accused him of “human trafficking.”
“This is the opposite of human trafficking. This is getting children to save them, not to abuse them,” he said.
‘It’s Dark Right Now’
As the final day of legal abortions wore on, the number of anti-abortion protesters at the clinic dwindled. E.C. Smith, a 70-year-old Black man who wears a priestly collar and describes himself as a “Messenger of God,” arrived with a black hat that said, “Unborn Lives Matter.”
Joshua Carroll, a white street preacher who teaches at East Mississippi Community College, attempted to dissuade a Black patient from pulling into the clinic driveway.
“Ma’am, please trust Jesus today, Jesus is Lord. It’s a death pit, this is the slave ship of death,” he bellowed, accusing the clinic of “murdering” both “colored babies and white babies.”
Patients were still arriving when Carroll packed up his suitcase and rolled it down the street to his car, leaving the clinic’s last abortion patients to arrive with only a few relatively quiet demonstrators still on the sidewalk.
As the last patients trickled in before 3 p.m., the volunteers who had long stood guard outside the clinic began gathering their things and exchanging hugs—some with tears. Several placed white handwritten signs up on the gates of the Pink House with words of encouragement and determination that the volunteers themselves had written:
“Thank you Pink House! For 27 years you were the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s dark right now, but the fire is still burning.”
“Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.”
“Pink House, thank you for being here. These people, this place has saved my life.”
The clinic had seen dozens of patients that day, including a 13-year-old rape victim, by the time the final one left the parking lot. With no more abortion patients to shepherd in or safely see out, Derenda Hancock, who has stood guard outside the clinic for almost 10 years, leaned against the black gate on the parking lot side of the clinic entrance.
“That’s it,” she said, after nearly a decade spent standing guard outside the Pink House beneath the scorching Mississippi sun. “It’s time to go.”