IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Outside Mississippi's only abortion clinic, a Black activist ensures women are not alone

When Asia Brown was a teenager, Mississippi passed the strictest abortion ban in the nation. Now she escorts patients past confrontations and protests.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

JACKSON, Miss. — Asia Brown doesn't expect subtlety from the protesters who congregate outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization, always with the same goal in mind — to stop those heading inside from having abortions.

She watched this year as a woman with a license plate for one of the state's public universities pulled up to the pink-hued facility, the sole abortion clinic in the state.

One of the protesters, an older white man, yelled at the woman that she was "killing" a future recruit for the university's football team.

To Brown, it was as if the man had whittled down the worth of the Black woman he was chiding to one purpose — being a football player-producing "machine."

Brown, 20, who is the only Black volunteer patient escort at the clinic, compared the episode to colonization.

Image: Asia Brown and Derenda Hancock
Asia Brown, left, sits with veteran clinic escort Derenda Hancock outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss., on May 20.Rogelio V. Solis / AP

"Who are you to be yelling?" Brown said, recalling her feelings in the moment. "What are you doing to support us in our everyday lives? Are you fighting for better education?"

In Brown's experience, the interjection of race, and racism, into Mississippi's abortion rights debate doesn't always play out so bluntly. But the racial dynamics shaping the state's past and present are inseparable from who is seeking and able to access abortion services within its borders and who will be able to do so in the future.

Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case sparked by a 2018 Mississippi law that sought to limit access to abortions in the state. The statute, which has not been enforced, imposes a near-blanket ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Image: Jackson Women's Health Organization abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi
Dr. Coleman Boyd, a protester, confronts a woman leaving the Jackson Women's Health Organization on May 20. Boyd often comes to the clinic several times a week, aiming to dissuade patients from having abortions.Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

The Jackson Women's Health Organization, which performs the procedure up to 16 weeks of pregnancy, sued the state the day the bill was signed. Federal courts at the district and the appellate level have struck down the law, called the Gestational Age Act, rebuffing the state's attempts to erode abortion access before viability, generally considered to be around 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Upholding the state law would turn back the rights enshrined in the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. Activists are already preparing for that reality.

In Mississippi, that outcome of the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, would fall heavily on Black women, particularly those living in poverty who may not be able to travel to other states for abortion care. (Overturning Roe would mean some states could outlaw or severely limit abortion access, while others would permit it.)

Data from the state Health Department show that almost three-fourths of women who received abortion care in the state in 2019 were Black. The architects of the law and its most ardent supporters were almost all white.

Image: Jackson Women's Health Organization abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi
An anti-abortion protester outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization holds rubber fetuses that she hands to women hoping to dissuade them from having abortions. Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

The law's supporters included Democratic lawmakers, who have splintered on abortion votes. Twelve Democrats, the majority of them white, crossed the aisle to approve the bill.

"You would have to be completely obtuse not to see that people who have consistently stood up for abortion rights in the Legislature have been Black folks with few exceptions," said Laurie Bertram Roberts, a longtime Mississippi organizer and executive director of the Tuscaloosa, Alabama-based Yellowhammer Fund, which helps people cover the costs of abortion care. "Even among liberals, they've been the ones kind of tasked with carrying the torch for that."

Outside the Legislature, the battle lines can look similar.

Many of the women who come to the Jackson Women's Health Organization, known as the "Pink House," are Black. Most of the pamphlet-carrying and bullhorn-wielding protesters who try to intercept them are white, as are nearly all of the 19 or so clinic volunteers in rainbow vests ushering patients inside.

Doug Lane, the anti-abortion rights activist who claimed football stardom as a reason to continue a pregnancy, has also accused Brown of contributing to the "genocide" of her people.

Lane, 69, said he’s been protesting outside the clinic since it opened in 1995, and he makes the football player appeal to both Black and white women.

“I’m not a racist person — I’ve spent over 30 years trying to rescue preborn Black children,” he said.

Brown doesn’t assess his approach, or other attempts to turn patients away, in a vacuum. She sees a straight runway from the sterilizations performed decades ago on impoverished Black women in the South without their consent and those who want to force their descendants to have children now.

Image: Anti-abortion protestors confront pateients entering the Jackson Women's Health Organization in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.
Derenda Hancock, who leads the Pink House Defenders, ushers a woman surrounded by anti-abortion protesters into the clinic. Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

'A long line of resistance'

At first, Brown said, blatantly being singled out by the clinic protesters shocked her.

But her childhood had taught her to expect such moments because of her race and gender, to know that both would shape how she moved in the world. Those experiences, she said, "come to you."

Brown grew up in Vicksburg, about 45 minutes from Jackson. As children, she and her sister often walked up the hill to their grandmother's home in a rural part of the town.

"I did almost everything with her," Brown said. Brown, who identifies "as a person of faith," recalled praying with her grandmother and baking with her. Her grandmother even taught them how to type.

"In those moments, we would ask her questions about what life was like growing up," Brown said.

Her grandmother told the girls about coming of age in the segregated Deep South. White students in her town had textbooks that weren't torn up, while Black children, like her, walked miles to their schoolhouse.

Brown's great-grandmother, who also lived nearby, took their family's history back even further by sharing the stories of an enslaved matriarch who ran away from a plantation in Fayette, Mississippi.

"They were so formative in my understanding of race and gender specifically, because I was hearing this from Black women," said Brown, whose grandmother died in March. "If I have children, these are the things I'm going to be able to tell them. I find a lot of what I do comes from a long line of resistance and fighting for survival."

Image: Jackson Women's Health Organization abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi
Asia Brown, a patient escort at the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, started volunteering after learning that women arriving for services were often confronted by protesters. Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

Becoming an activist

Brown was in the fifth grade in 2012 when the Mississippi Legislature passed a law that proponents and opponents agreed would have shut down the state's only abortion clinic if the courts had allowed it to fully take effect. She was in high school in 2018 when the state passed what was then the strictest abortion law in the country, prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In the fall of 2019, she headed off to Spelman College, a historically Black women's school in Atlanta. As a freshman, she thought about studying public health or becoming an epidemiologist. She ultimately decided to major in comparative women's studies and take classes that would gain her admission to nursing school.

For more of NBC News' in-depth reporting, download the NBC News app

The coronavirus pandemic forced her to come back home in the spring of her sophomore year. She grappled with being physically cut off from friends and the burgeoning independence she enjoyed living away from home.

Then came the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

"That summer was rough," Brown said. "All of that really beat me down."

In January, she came across a Facebook page documenting the conduct of anti-abortion protesters outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization. The Pink House Defenders, volunteers who escort patients to and from the clinic, recorded videos showing demonstrators on ladders peering over the facility's privacy fence and lifting up placards with graphic images.

Image: Jackson Women's Health Organization abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi
A privacy fence at the only abortion clinic in Mississippi has not deterred Dr. Coleman Boyd, an anti-abortion demonstrator, from approaching patients. Protesters often peek through the tarp and at times stand on ladders to confront the women on the other side.Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

Brown was stunned. She sent the group a message saying she wanted to become involved.

'I can't imagine the fear'

On the last Saturday in January, Brown woke up early to drive from Vicksburg to Jackson by 9 a.m. for her first weekend shift as a Pink House Defender.

As she walked up to the clinic, she saw dozens of protesters bundled up in coats, including children. A white man yelled into a microphone. Another held up a loudspeaker. They stood at the entrance of the clinic's parking lot, alongside a demonstrator holding a sign declaring: "Abortion is murder."

She thought about how patients would take it all in.

"I can't imagine the fear, the shame, the panic they must feel when they're driving up," Brown said.

Image: Jackson Women's Health Organization abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi
Brian Peden waves a copy of the Bible toward a car entering the Jackson clinic. Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

During some shifts, Derenda Hancock, a co-organizer of the defenders who is white, noticed that some protesters wouldn't let up on Brown. And certain ones kept mentioning her race, accusing her of "killing your own people."

"It was so directed at her," Hancock said.

Some of the volunteers engage with the anti-abortion demonstrators, questioning why they're there or decrying the way they follow patients outside the clinic.

Brown elects not to say much. She's not interested in a back-and-forth, and she doesn't feel it's her job to educate the protesters.

Sometimes, when the attacks are personal, she pushes back: "What do you mean by that?"

The Pink House battle

On the sidewalks outside the Pink House, an hour, and sometimes minutes, can make a difference in a patient's experience.

In late May, Dr. Coleman Boyd, a physician and frequent protester at the clinic, turned his attention to a group of patients waiting on the other side of a tarp-covered fence. The clinic's waiting room already had several people inside, and social distancing guidelines kept the remaining patients in an outdoor waiting area. As Boyd yelled toward the partition, a volunteer escort played the Twisted Sister song "We're Not Gonna Take It."

Image: Jackson Women's Health Organization abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi
Dr. Coleman Boyd argues with a volunteer clinic escort. Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

"'We're not going to take it' will get you nowhere," Boyd said. Within minutes, he was holding up a bullhorn mounted on a pole, facing the clinic's fence.

The next week, Boyd approached a car with a Black woman and man inside waiting for an appointment.

"Sir, you're a father," he said. "That baby is a gift from God."

Not satisfied, he grabbed two posters. He extended one with a picture of a fetus and asked the occupants to look at the fingers.

"This is your son or daughter," he said.

The pair kept their windows rolled up. Boyd then hoisted a poster that appeared to show a nearly decapitated fetus, with a caption saying that the image was taken after an abortion performed in the second trimester.

"This is what abortion does," he cried. "Is that not horrendous? This is what it does. It murders innocent children."

The woman sitting in the passenger seat covered her face with her hand and looked down.

"Let us adopt it," Boyd appealed.

Boyd declined to be interviewed.

The same morning, Lydia Sullivan stood outside the clinic with a stack of pamphlets. Sullivan, a mother of five, who is white, has tried to come out at least once a week for the past 12 years to dissuade women from getting abortions.

If financial concerns are driving women to have abortions, Sullivan said, then they can get financial help from churches and anti-abortion groups. The government, she suggested, would also provide free health care.

Conversations outside the clinic are rare, but Sullivan said some women who have continued their pregnancies have welcomed her at their baby showers. After that, however, she has lost touch.

'Radical love is what's going to help us survive ... '

Mississippi's Medicaid program does cover low-income women and those under age 19 during pregnancy, but the insurance normally ends two months after they give birth. And the state is one of 12 that has rejected Medicaid expansion. It's a sore spot for lawmakers who opposed, and even some supporters of, the 15-week ban.

State Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, a Democrat who voted against the ban, said bills that could provide a safety net for families often never make it out of committee.

If lawmakers and residents "are true about being 'pro-life,'" she said, "we should support issues that provide an equitable life for all children and all people in this state, such as expanding Medicaid, making kindergarten mandatory, fully funding public education and raising the minimum wage so those who are living in our state are able to make a decent salary for themselves."

For Brown, these priorities connect to reproductive justice work started by women of color. Brown outlined the movement as affirming "the right not to have children but also to have children and raise them in a place that's safe for us."

That means improving maternal health outcomes in a state where an expectant mother might live in a county without an OB-GYN or an emergency room. It means addressing the socioeconomic inequalities that have entrenched generations in poverty.

Brown launched a grassroots effort alongside her sister this year called 601 for Period Equity to distribute menstrual products in Vicksburg and Jackson.

"Radical love is what's going to help us survive, providing that supply and support to folks," she said.

'No turning back'

In a few months, Brown will return to Atlanta for school. She hopes to continue volunteering in Georgia.

"No turning back at this point," she said.

Image: Jackson Women's Health Organization abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi
Ellie Rome, Asia Brown and Derenda Hancock take a break outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization. Brown plans to continue volunteer work around abortion rights when she returns to college in Georgia this fall.Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

Last Friday, as a woman stepped out of a maroon car in the clinic's parking lot, Brown walked over to her side. A group of protesters on the sidewalk turned toward them.

"The Lord loves you," one cried out. "He has a better plan than this."

"Life is a beautiful choice. We'd love to help you."

It was a departure from their shouting earlier in the morning that the decision to end a pregnancy was akin to murder.

Brown had already told the woman that she didn't have to listen to them.

The feet alongside her kept moving, so she did, too.