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The Mississippi abortion clinic at the center of the Supreme Court fight shuts its doors for good

Silence fell outside Mississippi's only abortion clinic after a final day of clashes between opponents and supporters of abortion rights.

JACKSON, Miss. — As the sun bore down around 2:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Dale Gibson began affixing signs to the iron fence surrounding Mississippi’s only abortion clinic. 

“The fight is not over,” one read.

In cursive script, another vowed: “This is not the end.” 

Wednesday was the last day the Jackson Women’s Health Organization was legally allowed to perform abortions in Mississippi. It was the last day Gibson and his fellow volunteer patient escorts gathered outside the clinic to defend a right that no longer exists in much of the country. 

Image: Dale Gibson affixes a sign to the iron fence surrounding the  Jackson Women’s Health Organization clinic on Wednesday.
Dale Gibson affixes a sign to the iron fence surrounding the Jackson Women’s Health Organization on Wednesday. Bracey Harris / NBC News

For years, the volunteers — known as the Pink House Defenders, a nickname derived from the building’s flamingo hue — have blasted music to drown out the screams of protesters trying to dissuade patients from entering. 

Now, there was quiet. 

Before he turned to walk away from the clinic, Gibson said he “was still a little numb.” His emotions had been going in circles: “anger to despair to f--- it all to kind of back to despair.” 

On Thursday, Mississippi becomes the latest in a growing number of states in the South where nearly all abortion care is banned after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. 

Mississippi’s trigger law gave the Jackson Women’s Health Organization a 10-day window to continue operations after state Attorney General Lynn Fitch certified the Supreme Court’s ruling. Going forward, the only exceptions to the ban are if a patient’s life is in danger or if a patient was raped and reported the assault to law enforcement. 

Image: Diane Derzis
Diane Derzis, owner of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, at a news conference on June 24. Rogelio V. Solis / AP file

For years, the clinic known locally as the Pink House had beaten back a wave of laws designed to stop it from operating. Now, Diane Derzis, the clinic’s owner, has decided to finally close its doors. 

On Wednesday, she checked in with the clinic's director and offered a message of support. She didn’t give the number of patients who received care in the clinic’s final hours, but she said that in the last few days there had been “an awful lot.” Since the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Pink House has been open every day it possibly could, Derzis said.

“I wish it were longer,” she said. “But it is what it is.”

The clinic expects that a few final patients could come in for follow-up visits on Thursday, before the Pink House closes for good.

Derzis plans to open a new Pink House in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She expects to begin serving patients there in about two weeks. 

“The Pink House is just a building,” she said. “It’s moving on.” 

Dr. Cheryl Hamlin is following the Pink House to New Mexico — but she worries that many of the women who sought abortion care at the Jackson clinic won’t be able to do the same. 

Image: Dr. Cheryl Hamlin hugs Kim Gibson, co-founder of The Pink House Defenders and clinic escort, before heading back home to Massachusetts at the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic  in Jackson, Miss., on June 7, 2022.
Dr. Cheryl Hamlin hugs Kim Gibson, a co-founder of The Pink House Defenders and a clinic escort, before heading back home to Massachusetts on June 7. Erin Clark / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

Hamlin, who lives in Massachusetts, is one of several physicians who rotated shifts at the Pink House. She stayed at the clinic into the evening on Tuesday reviewing patient charts and then returned early Wednesday for the clinic’s last procedures. 

She fears that the fall of abortion rights, coupled with health care shortages in Mississippi’s poorest rural communities, will cost lives. In the state's economically disadvantaged communities, researchers have documented poor access to OB-GYNs.

In 2019, Shyteria Shoemaker, 23, died after her family frantically tried to find her care when she became short of breath. The hospital only a few minutes from her home had shuttered its emergency room roughly five years before. The county’s strained ambulance service took almost 30 minutes to arrive.  

Shoemaker, who was pregnant, was pronounced dead shortly after she arrived at a hospital in a neighboring county.

“No one’s taking care of them,” Hamlin said of the women living in Mississippi’s health care deserts. “They’re people who are trying hard … but they’re really poor, and they don’t have options.”

On Wednesday morning, Derenda Hancock, a co-founder of We Engage, the nonprofit group that organizes the Pink House Defenders, arrived outside the clinic in a straw hat adorned with a green bandanna. For nearly a decade, she has faced off against throngs of abortion opponents, some of them hostile, some of them quietly holding pamphlets. Just like her, they rarely missed a day when the clinic was open. 

Image: Allen Siders
Clinic escorts use signs to block anti-abortion activist Allen Siders as he shouts at women entering the Jackson Women's Health Organization on Wednesday. Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Hancock’s voice was steady, betraying little about what she knew she would feel over the next few hours. 

“I’m sure by the end of the day, I won’t be able to hold it much longer,” she said. “Got to get through it before we can lose it.” 

Later Wednesday morning, David Lane, an anti-abortion rights protester, followed his younger brother, Doug, to the front of the clinic, where Doug began shouting. A group of people carrying signs supporting abortion rights began blowing kazoos to drown out Doug’s cries. A security guard stepped in between the men and abortion rights supporters.

The Lanes are among the throng of demonstrators who have gathered outside the clinic over the years. 

“Everyone expects us to be elated,” David Lane said later in an interview. “What we are is very grateful.” 

But he expressed doubt that Wednesday would be the final chapter in the fight over abortion rights in Mississippi — and the nation.

“The government gave us Roe in ’73. The government’s taken it away in ’22. What will prevent the government from giving it back in ’26? Nothing,” he said.

Lane noted that the Supreme Court’s ruling hadn’t resulted in abortion’s being banned in states like North Carolina, where he plans to travel next. Closer to home, he expects organizations like Pro-Life Mississippi to arrange support for residents with few options to end their pregnancies.

Image: Doug Lane
A clinic security officer tries to separate anti-abortion activist Doug Lane, left, from abortion rights supporters, who used noisemakers to drown out Lane's bullhorn.Rogelio V. Solis / AP

In the midafternoon, after Gibson hung the signs the Pink House Defenders had made on the fence outside, the group of volunteers stood looking up at them, taking some final photos and saying their goodbyes. Hancock embraced a young defender wearing a baseball cap, and then they turned and began walking away. 

Gibson, 53, was considering his steps in fighting for the protections that he worried would be next to fall — like trans rights and gay rights. Birth control, he thought, would also most likely come under attack. 

“They want to take everything back to the 1900s,” he said. 

For now, he would leave the clinic and go home to smoke a brisket. In the near future, he plans to move with his wife, Kim Gibson, another co-founder of We Engage, to California — where “there’s some semblance of the Constitution,” he said.

Image:
Two clinic escorts walk away from the Jackson Women's Health Organization on Wednesday.Rogelio V. Solis / AP