'You're Going to Be Finding Babies in Dumpsters:' Director of Mississippi's Last Abortion Clinic Speaks Out Ahead of Supreme Court Case
Back in 1966 — seven years before the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade — Mississippi was the first state in the nation to legalize abortion for victims of rape. Up until the early 1980s, when state legislators embarked on a campaign to shutter them via a series of increasingly onerous restrictions, there were more than a dozen abortion clinics serving women across the state. Today, only one is left: Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in Jackson, Mississippi, known as the Pink House for its garish and cheerful paint job.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that threatens to close the state’s last remaining clinic and, worse, serve as the vehicle to end Roe once and for all. At issue is a law signed by Mississippi’s governor in 2018 that outlaws abortion after 15 weeks — roughly half the time protected by the Constitution under Roe — on the grounds that the “medical, emotional, and psychological consequences of abortion are serious and … lasting.” The fact that the court has agreed to hear the case has alarmed advocates worried the conservative majority is ready to torch a legal precedent that has protected reproductive rights in this country for decades.
As the court date has creeped closer, Jackson Women’s has been busier than ever, serving not just Mississipians, but an overwhelming influx of patients from Texas, where, in September, abortion was virtually outlawed at just six weeks under a law known as Senate Bill 8. As the clinic’s caseload has nearly doubled, the daily onslaught of harassment from anti-choice protestors has remained steady. Rolling Stone spoke with clinic director Shannon Brewer, who has worked at the Pink House for more than 20 years, about what she has seen in that time, what these past few months have been like for her staff, and what it would mean for women in the state if the court choose to uphold Mississippi’s ban — or worse, reverse Roe altogether.
The day SB 8 went into effect, our phones just started ringing nonstop, from the time we opened until the time we closed, and many of them were Texas patients looking for somewhere that they could go. At the time, we were seeing patients three days a week, so we were getting booked up pretty quickly. Other clinics were calling us, asking if they could refer patients to us because they’re booked up too.
Normally, we’ll see anywhere from 150 to 200 patients a month, about 30 to 50 visitors a week. Now we’re seeing over 300, just for abortions. That doesn’t include people who come for birth control. About one-fourth of our patients right now are Texas-based, just about half are people from Mississippi, and the other one fourth are from the surrounding states — Louisiana, Tennessee.
We used to have four doctors, each coming in once a week. None of them live here locally. They would just fly in for three days, and then they would fly back out. Now, because of the uptick in our patients, we have one doctor that flies in for two or three days and another doctor for two or three days in the same week. Without the doctors, I have seven employees. Everyone except the young lady at the front desk is cross-trained, meaning the person who does labs, she can also do ultrasounds, she’s also an O.R. tech. Everybody is trying to cover all areas in case something happens and someone can’t work.
It seems to have gotten a lot more intense these last few years. I don’t know if it was when Trump came in, but the “anti’s” seem to have gotten a little more rowdy, a little more bold. They come on the property sometimes. The city police don’t do anything. They have these big speakers that they come and set up. They scream, yell at the patients. They yell at the staff. They bring ladders to stand up on and look over into the facility. They try to intimidate the doctors and scare them so they won’t come back.
The FBI won’t consider it a threat unless they say certain things and in a certain way, but they’ve tried to intimidate me many times. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the things that they say. They call and say crazy things on the phone at the clinic, but it’s never a direct threat. They know the limit to go to in order for it to be a threat, and they go right to the limit without going there.
Me and my staff, we try to ignore them for the most part. We pull up, we go inside, and we’re trying to concentrate on seeing the patients and making sure they’re OK. As a patient, if you walk in from up the street, the protestors, they literally pounce — four or five of them basically attack you — and they are in your face the whole way there. By the time the patients reach the inside, they’re upset, they’re shocked. We have to spend time just comforting the patient, making sure the patient is OK, before moving further.
The women who come here are women who are already struggling — mostly African American women because of where we are. This [Supreme Court case] is going to affect them drastically, because these are people who, the majority of them, don’t have access to travel out-of-state. They can’t go and jump on a plane and go to this state and have an abortion; [if the ban is upheld] you’re going to have women trying to do things that they’re not supposed to — trying to do illegal things. Already, people call us and say, “I took this,” or “I read about this online, can you tell me how to do this or that?” You’re going to have women having babies and dropping them off at “safe places” — these hospitals and these fire stations — and you’re going to be finding babies in dumpsters like they do now. If they see that this is going on now, why would they think if they made abortion illegal, it would not be more of that?
I grew up right outside of Jackson, in Ridgeland. I went to school to be a beautician — a cosmetologist, as they call it — but I started having children at a young age. I was 19. That’s why [with] a lot of the women that come in — I don’t just see these cases — I get them, I understand what they’re dealing with. I had six kids in my twenties. Those 10 years of my life were a lot. Being a single parent, trying to make it out here in this world — it’s a harsh world we have. And maybe that’s why it’s easier for me to understand these faces, and not question them as far as their reasons.
I had just had my youngest son when I started working part time at the clinic. My aunt was the director at that time, and they were looking for someone to work part time in sterilization — cleaning the medical instruments. She called me to see if I was interested because at that time I wasn’t working. She’s one of those people who [you] can’t tell no because she’s just so nice about how she asks for things.
She started there in 1996, right after it opened. She was director for about 10, 15 years, and stayed on as counselor up until July of last year. She taught me a lot. She’s older now, and she’s the type of person who knows everything about the abortion industry and the laws, and she taught it all to me.
The previous owner had been ill for a while, my aunt had retired, I was just trying to make sure everything was running. Then the owner passed and Diane [Derzis] came in, and as soon as she realized that I was the person that was doing all this, that’s when she and I spoke about me being the director.
I’ll never forget when Diane bought the clinic: She walked in, looked, and she was like, “Oh, my God, we’ve got to change this. We’ve got to get some colors in here!” The facility at that time was completely beige with a green roof, and inside everything was beige and tan and brown. It looked like a hospital. She said that colors give warmth and happiness — just because someone has to have an abortion, they don’t have to feel so bad when they come in.
She says, “We gotta paint this purple, we’re gonna paint this pink” — and I’m standing there with my mouth open, because I began working there about 10 years earlier; and her and the previous owner, they were great friends, but were like night and day.
That was in 2010. It’s just a little more demanding now, due to the Supreme Court [case], and all the new laws they keep passing. I’m busy responding to attorneys and press, but at the same time, we’re trying to see as many patients as possible. In the morning I go in and, if we have a lot of patients, I’ll help them do ultrasounds, help them do labs — just wherever they need me.
The worst day I’ve had working at the clinic? There have been several of those. When they tried to pass the law about the hospital privileges. We didn’t know if we were going to open the next day. We all just sat there all day, waiting to hear from the attorneys, and the decision came down real late in the evening. That was a hard day. And now, of course, the Supreme Court. Every other law that we’ve fought, there’s a feeling you have about it — you kind of know that you can beat it, and you can move forward. But the admitting privileges [fight] was hard, and now, the Supreme Court — I think it’s maybe one of the hardest.
We didn’t know what to tell patients. We didn’t know whether to reschedule the patients that were supposed to come the following day. It was quiet that day because nobody knew. Nobody had an answer. And it was quiet all the way up until we got the phone call. That’s the closest I’ve been to being worried about [the clinic closing].
We follow the law, we follow the protocols that they put in place, even though half of them have nothing to do with us taking care of patients. We’re very careful about everything. We make sure that we’re not doing anything that’s outside the law. And we are just going to try to fight, every time, if we know [a new regulation] serves no purpose.
The 15-week ban: We would still be seeing patients like if they just [upheld] that. What worries us is if they turn it back over to the states to make these decisions. If that happens, Mississippi is going to be without a clinic. The present governor has let it be known that they are going to ban abortion if that ever happens. And it’s not only Mississippi — there are 10 other states [where so-called trigger laws that would ban abortion if Roe were overturned are already] on the books. It’s going to hurt not only Mississippi patients, it’s going to hurt patients everywhere because these patients aren’t going to have anywhere to go.
I don’t know what I would do if that happened. It would depend. I’m assuming we would still be trying to help patients in some form, to have procedures done somewhere. [Maybe] we’ll do ultrasounds, lab work, referrals, help with transportation costs — transportation in general. I was laughing because the owner said the other day, “We’ll just buy a bus, and we’ll take them. We’ll just drive them wherever they need to go — and we’ll paint it pink!”
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