The pink house brawl
The fight over abortion access could culminate in the upcoming Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization
Kristin Turner stood in front of the quiet crowd of about 25 people gathered in front of Mississippi’s only abortion center, a glowing candle in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. The evening air chilled the California native. Others at the Oct. 29 vigil in Jackson wore winter coats and hats, but 20-year-old Turner only had a black leather jacket. When she shook with cold, the hot candle wax dripped onto her hand. But her voice was steady as she spoke into the bullhorn.
“I can tell you just three years ago, I idolized this building,” said Turner, pointing to the pink-walled Jackson Women’s Health Organization. As usual, a black tarp hung from the fence and gate to conceal the front of the building from public view. “I thought it was an icon of feminism. I thought that these pink walls represented my freedom. But it wasn’t until I learned what abortion did to another human being that I had my eyes opened.”
Above the gate, the pro-life activists projected the words “FIGHT FOR THE 2,363” onto the building’s facade. To Turner’s right, a lit-up truck bore the image of two baby footprints in blue and the message “Where are our children? Find out at 2363.org.” The gathering was part of Live Action’s nationwide 2,363 campaign, meant to raise awareness about the number of children killed by abortion each day.
As Turner continued, hands lifted away the black boards balanced on the top of the gate behind her. With a loud creak, the gate swung open and about half a dozen women with reflective vests stepped forward with pro-abortion signs. One of the women rolled forward a large speaker and began blasting a song by Twisted Sister: “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” After several seconds of silence, Turner began shouting into her megaphone, “Abortion is violence!” A few of the other pro-lifers joined in. When the pro-lifers moved to another side of the building to finish their program, the women in vests—pro-abortion escorts defending the “Pink House”—followed with the music.
“It didn’t go … how we expected it to go,” said Turner. “It was supposed to, like, be a vigil in remembrance. It wasn’t meant to be this big loud thing that it turned into.”
But she and the others had expected pushback. From seeing posts about the facility online, Turner knew the Pink House Defenders’ reputation for aggressively countering pro-life efforts. Derenda Hancock, a leader and co-founder of the Defenders, said that night in a livestreamed video on the group’s Facebook page, “You don’t come to the Pink House and think you’re gonna do it un-countered.”
For years, the facility has been the site of local tensions between pro-life and pro-abortion activists. Since becoming the state’s last remaining abortion facility in 2008, Jackson Women’s Health Organization has also become a national symbol for abortion advocates. Now, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a Supreme Court case examining the facility’s lawsuit against a pro-life Mississippi law, could determine the future of Roe v. Wade. The court will consider the constitutionality of pre-viability abortion bans such as the one Mississippi passed in 2018. A ruling upholding Mississippi’s law would chip away at, if not topple, past abortion precedent that considers abortion until viability to be a constitutional right, limiting measures states can take to regulate abortion. With oral arguments set for Dec. 1, all eyes are on the Pink House, with tension escalating there and nationally.
JAMESON TAYLOR DRIVES PAST the Pink House about twice a month on his way to meetings with lawmakers. Although he used to do sidewalk counseling with his wife when they lived in Dallas, he doesn’t frequent the sidewalks outside of Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Instead, Taylor works as a lobbyist. In 2018, then working for the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, he lobbied for the Mississippi abortion bill that would eventually make it to the Supreme Court, bringing the tensions in Jackson to the national level.
Mississippi in 2014 passed a law protecting babies from abortion after 20 weeks, the point at which research suggests they can feel pain. Pro-abortion groups didn’t challenge the law, so lawmakers wanted to see if they could push back the legal cutoff even further. The law that Taylor helped research and write restricted abortion after 15 weeks.
Less than an hour after Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed the law in March 2018, Jackson Women’s Health Organization sued. In some ways, it was an odd move: According to the facility website, abortionists only perform abortion procedures up to 16 weeks, meaning that under the law, the facility would only have to cut out a sliver of its services.
“The reality is that the 15-week limit on abortion is not going to limit abortion access in Mississippi in a fundamental way,” said Taylor. The bill’s sponsor in the House of Representatives, Rep. Becky Currie, pointed out the facility didn’t bring this lawsuit on its own: “The clinic is being represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights and has the backing of the national abortion movement, whose mission is to allow abortion throughout every stage of pregnancy.”
Taylor also linked the lawsuit to those national ties: “The last abortion clinic [in Mississippi] is a major fundraiser for the national pro-abortion movement. They have made a lot of money out of this narrative that Mississippi only has one abortion clinic and appeal to their donors and say help us to maintain abortion access here in Mississippi.”
The Pink House first became a national symbol when its failure to comply with a 2012 law requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at a local hospital threatened to close the facility. Already unable to retain local physicians to perform the procedure, the facility has historically flown in out-of-state abortionists. The facility’s owner, Diane Derzis, cited out-of-state residency as one of the reasons no local hospital would grant the privileges to the facility’s physicians.
Amid the years-long battle over the law, the facility was on the brink of closure several times. A young filmmaker came to Jackson to capture the drama in a pair of documentaries about the state’s last abortion facility: The Last Clinic and the Emmy award-winning Jackson. Pro-life activist Turner said seeing one of these documentaries as a high schooler contributed to her strong support for abortion at the time due to its flattering depiction of the work at the facility. That exposure and the building’s bright color made it iconic for pro-abortion activists: In 2013, Derzis chose to have the facility painted a shade of pink (described as “bubblegum” by abortion advocates and “Pepto-Bismol” by some pro-lifers) that she said made the statement, “We’re right here, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Pro-abortion escorts at the facility launched a “Pinkhouse Defenders” Facebook page on which they post mocking pictures and videos of pro-life advocates who come to the facility. Facility staff also started a Pink House Fund to receive donations to help women cover their abortion costs. In reaction to the Dobbs case, a group of female artists in June 2021 released a print called Pink House, available for $1,350, money the artists pledge to give to Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
FOUR DAYS A WEEK, 38-year-old Jennifer Dillard quietly gets up at 5:30 a.m. so as not to disturb her sleeping husband and three children. After drinking her morning smoothie, she drives 15 minutes to Jackson Women’s Health, where she parks two spots down from one of the client escorts. She’s usually the first pro-lifer there.
For two hours, Dillard wears a reflective vest and stands by a pink sign that reads, “Bags for clinic patients here.” She hands out goodie bags—filled with potato chips, chocolate, and pro-life information cards—to the women who come to the facility for their morning appointments. Those are usually the mandatory counseling sessions the facility has to schedule at least 24 hours before an abortion appointment. Those happen in the afternoons. Meanwhile, the client escorts often play rock music to drown out pro-lifers’ voices. Around 9 a.m., Dillard drives back home to start the school day with her homeschooled kids.
She’s been coming to the sidewalk for a little more than a year and still remembers one of the first events she attended in the fall of 2020. It was a 40 Days for Life campaign, and pro-life families had come to pray on the sidewalk. They stood quietly as the escorts stood with their big pro-abortion signs and one of them performed a sexualized dance. Dillard put an umbrella on the raised curb in front of the facility, not knowing the area was technically off-limits to pro-lifers. One of the escorts scolded her. “I was surprised that someone would be rude about that.”
The goodie bags Dillard first started handing out were regular gift bags, but some women told her that escorts would remove pro-life information cards. So Dillard started using clear cellophane bags, concealing the brochures behind colorful tissue paper and tying the bags shut at the top with ribbon. Since starting, she and other pro-lifers have given out about 2,900 bags.
She tries not to interact with the escorts, but they don’t make it easy. One day last summer, Pink House Defender Kim Gibson mocked and insulted Dillard to her face, calling her the “snacks and shame lady.” She livestreamed the rant on Facebook. Another time, Dillard said, a Pink House Defender yelled insults at Dillard’s 70-year-old mother who had joined her that day, calling her “garbage” and trashing Christianity. “It’s like the only place in the world where you find people acting like that, I feel like,” Dillard said.
Doug Lane, a regular on the sidewalk at Jackson Women’s Health since 1995, said he’s seen about seven client escorts at the facility at a time in recent months. That’s about twice the usual number, and he links it to the increasing national tensions over abortion. After the Texas heartbeat bill took effect in September, Lane and others started noticing more women arriving at the facility in cars with Texas and Louisiana license plates as facilities closer to the Texas border booked up, making Jackson the next best option. The facility also increased operations from three to five days a week to accommodate the uptick in patients.
Lane senses increased hostility: “They’re all ratcheted up over the Texas law. They’re ratcheted up over the fact that the Supreme Court is going to hear the Mississippi case, the 15-week case, and then of course make some kind of decision on that.”
IN RESPONSE TO TEXAS’ heartbeat bill and the upcoming oral arguments in the Dobbs case, organizers of the nationwide 2021 Women’s March rebranded their October demonstrations as “abortion justice” marches. On Oct. 2 in Minneapolis, a pro-life university student recorded a pro-abortion protester hitting her with a sign. Pro-abortion activists in Denver swarmed a small group of pro-lifers and began yelling at them, kicking their ankles, and stealing their signs. Brei Brooke, a pregnant 25-year-old with Students for Life, said someone spit on her and others told her they hoped her baby would die. Brooke captured a video of a woman in a pink crop top yelling, “If I want to kill my baby, I will [obscenity] kill it.”
At one point, Brooke and the other pro-lifers held hands and prayed as they stood on the stairs of the Colorado Capitol, the women’s marchers swarming around them. Despite the hostility, the pro-lifers with her were optimistic about the recent political developments. Students for Life staffer Elizabeth Nogueras-Rivera expressed the attitude many pro-lifers have leading up to the oral arguments: “I don’t think that [Dobbs] will reverse Roe v. Wade, but I think this is a step in the right direction.”
Shannon Brewer, the director at Jackson Women’s Health, sees it as a step in the wrong direction. She was surprised when the court announced in May that it would take up the Mississippi case. “This ban is plainly unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade,” she wrote in a June 2021 op-ed in The New York Times. “I was not concerned when the state appealed to the Supreme Court. I expected the court would not take up the case.”
After the court announced it would hear the case, Diane Derzis, the owner of the Pink House, released a statement bemoaning the effect a ruling to uphold the 15-week ban would have on abortion access in Mississippi. “We see patients who have spent weeks saving up the money to travel here,” she wrote. “If this ban were to take effect, we would be forced to turn many of those patients away, and they would lose their right to abortion in this state.”
But the ban itself wouldn’t be the abortion industry’s main problem from such a ruling. The case could mean the end of Roe. “This time it’s not just about keeping the doors open at JWHO,” says a July post to the Pinkhouse Defenders Facebook page about the Dobbs case. “It’s about keeping the doors open across the country.” An attached picture shows the front of the Pink House and explains, “It’s not just another brick in the wall. … It’s the last [obscenity] barricade!”
Pro-lifers are hesitant to say for certain the court will use the Dobbs case to do that, but Taylor is optimistic that the court’s ruling will allow states to regulate pre-viability abortions. If the court intended to let Roe stand, he said, the justices wouldn’t have agreed to take up the Mississippi case in the first place. “The way that the question has been framed … ‘Can states regulate pre-viability abortions?’… The answer seems to me that it’s going to be ‘Yes, but,’” said Taylor. “So the question is, what comes after the ‘but’?”
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