Working at Pink House, Mississippi’s Last Abortion Clinic

Clinic escorts are the first line of defense against abortion protesters. At Mississippi’s Pink House, it’s a dangerous job.

03.13.15 9:25 AM ET

JACKSON, Miss. — When Michelle Colon, a clinic escort for the Jackson Women’s Health Organization (JWHO), orders delivery, she doesn’t need to give an address.

“The Pink House,” she says. And failing that, “The abortion clinic.”

That’s enough direction for most. There’s only one building in the Fondren neighborhood that has been painted the unmistakable color of Pepto Bismol. And there’s only one abortion clinic remaining in the entire state of Mississippi—one of just a handful of states, mostly in the South and Midwest, that are down to a single clinic.

The JWHO has been on the verge of being shut down for years but Colon and the other clinic escorts I meet are certain it will remain open. They speak with the sort of confidence that seems necessary to wear fluorescent vests in front of a bright pink building that’s been under siege for years.

In 2012, a state law requiring all physicians at abortion clinics to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital nearly closed the JWHO. For out-of-state doctors working in conservative regions of the country, admitting privileges are doubly impossible to obtain. Despite a lawsuit from the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of the JWHO, the law was allowed to stand but a federal judge allowed the clinic to stay open temporarily while the physicians sought admitting privileges.

When they predictably failed to receive these privileges, the fate of the clinic was on the line until last July, when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the application of the law to the clinic without overturning the law itself. The basis for this decision was that the 2012 law, while technically legal, cannot be used to end abortion in the state altogether.

In other words, the last clinic in Mississippi is allowed to stand only because it is the last clinic in Mississippi—a fragile foundation in a state with a governor who has said that he wants to “end abortion” within its borders.

This foundation is already under attack. Last month, Mississippi State Attorney General Jim Hood appealed the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the block, throwing the fate of the Pink House up in the air once more. But at this point, when hasn’t it been under threat of closure?

Through the legal struggles of the past few years, the media have zeroed in on the work that takes place inside the Pink House, profiling the doctors who work there or—as The Daily Beast did three years ago—its iconic owner, Diane Derzis.

But the escorting work that goes on outside the clinic—led by women like Michelle Colon—has been just as vital in the nationwide fights to keep abortion clinics standing. Clinic escorts are responsible for greeting clients, guiding them to the building, and ensuring safe passage through or past protesters. In a direct and physical way, they are the front lines of the abortion debate and their perspective from the ground reveals a culture war that is quickly coming to a head.

I pull into the small JWHO parking lot on what the clinic escorts call a “short day,” just as it is starting to rain. Two older women protesting the clinic peek their heads around the fence bordering the parking lot as I get out of my car, presumably to ascertain whether or not I have come to Jackson to have an abortion. But neither of them engages me. They seem shy, if anything.

These are not the loud protesters, I am told.

“Yeah, we have shouters,” says clinic escort Derenda Hancock.

The more strident voices tend to gather on busy days to yell at clients and distribute pamphlets to them as they walk to the clinic. Kayley Scruggs, the youngest clinic escort who volunteers at the JWHO while on break from college, shows me literature from “shouters” who belong to the Abolish Human Abortion (AHA) organization—booklets that refer to abortion as “child sacrifice” and warn that it will bring about “black genocide.”

“We’re saving some of it for a bonfire,” she jokes.

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And Colon, who is African-American herself, doubts the sincerity of their concerns for “black genocide,” given experiences she has had with the protesters over the course of her 20 years with the JWHO, including particularly tense conversations about interracial marriage.

Shortly after I arrive at the Pink House, a man with a “Jesus Saves” sticker on his rear window drives up to the two female protesters and they all leave together before I have a chance to speak with them. The clinic won’t be open for much longer so they call it a half-day.

Once, Hancock tells me, one of the protesters was upset that she wasn’t given advance notice of the clinic’s schedule so that she could plan her day accordingly.

“She asked me, ‘Why didn’t you tell me it was a short day?’ And I said, ‘Why would I tell you?’”

As they speak about their work, these three clinic escorts demonstrate the unwelcome but inevitable familiarity they have developed with the protesters, whom they call “antis.” The clinic escorts know all of the protesters by their first names and by the cars they drive. They know which churches they attend, which organizations they are affiliated with, and how their pasts have led them here.

They’re perpetually alert when new protesters or groups arrive but they have to be—Diane Derzis’ clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph in 1998.

The escorts are caught in a bizarre and uneasy lockstep with the protesters as well. Hancock is known to the protesters as the “Party Girl,” a moniker that she likely earned with her curly blond hair and her upbeat attitude around the clinic. Her eyes light up when she shows me one of the nonsensical counter-protest signs her boyfriend likes to hold up next to the anti-abortion protesters.

The Godfather is my favorite movie,” it reads.

Another one of her favorites: “Hot water freezes faster than cold water.”

“They kept asking him, ‘What does it mean?’” she recalls, with a laugh.

The protesters profile Scruggs based on her youth. One of them once told her that she should get married to a nice man who can “respect her,” a suggestion to which she did not take kindly. She learned to assert herself right off the bat.

“Once I established that presence and showed them that I wasn’t afraid of them, it was a lot easier for me,” she says.

Colon is seen as the keeper of the property and, after years in that role, she likes to play with the protesters’ perceptions of her. Some days she talks to them, other days she ignores them. Some days she’s friendly, other days she’s ice cold.

“It’s like a Jedi mind trick,” she explains.

All of the clinic escorts agree that the general “do not engage” principle that many abortion clinic escorts follow cannot be applied without exception in a place like the Pink House, which draws all sorts of protesters from surrounding states.

“If you don’t engage, they’ll walk all over you,” says Scruggs.

“We need to rethink our strategy,” Hancock agrees.

And Colon summarizes the message she wants to send to the protesters with this mantra: “We’re louder than you, we’re younger than you, we’re stronger than you.”

Colon, Scruggs, and Hancock do not seek out confrontation while escorting but they do speak out when necessary. It’s hard not to be vocal in the current political climate in which women must face down protesters to receive an abortion—if they can manage to receive one at all.

In the 2010s, so-called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws are picking up steam as states seek to strategically limit the number of abortion providers by requiring, for example, that clinics meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, including specific hallway widths. The pace at which states have been passing abortion regulations is unprecedented. On a federal level, anti-abortion legislation has been a priority for the Republican Congress as well. Over 40 years have passed since Roe v. Wade, but the right to abortion is becoming more of an abstraction and less of a guarantee.

In the midst of this culture war, the clinic escorts demonstrate an extra level of protectiveness for their clients and a heightened degree of political assertiveness in the face of opposition.

This simultaneously defensive and defiant stance is echoed by the property itself, which feels both circumscribed by the omnipresence of the protesters and intentionally designed to keep them at bay.

I talk with the clinic escorts while seated around tables in what they lovingly refer to as “the pit,” a tented area at the bottom of the stairs leading from the parking lot to the clinic’s main entrance. Protesters used to grab the metal bars of the gate surrounding the pit and mime being imprisoned as clients walked by. Now, long sheets of black fabric have been threaded through the gate to prevent this behavior.

The aforementioned fence in the rear of the property marks another addition to the property and, according to Colon, it infuriated the protesters when it was first installed. Every morning, the clinic escorts place chairs bearing their own signage near the fence. A property line has been painted on the adjacent driveway for good measure.

The more one reads about conflicts and police interventions at the Pink House—protesters were arrested just last year for obstructing the sidewalk—the clearer it becomes that these suburban boundaries are battle-worn. In the broader fight over abortion rights, sweeping ideological lines are drawn in the sand in the political aisle but these physical lines—driveways, fences, streets—have been just as crucial to manage and maintain.

Allow a boundary to be crossed, the clinic escorts tell me, and it becomes meaningless.

Scruggs takes me to the corner in the front of the building where protesters who have a restraining order are legally allowed to demonstrate. Colon points out new shrubs that have been strategically planted to obscure their view of the entrance. The bushes angered them, too, she says.

But it’s impossible to completely hide a building like the Pink House. The clinic has been bright pink for a little over two years now, a color that marks an unabashed embrace of its own hypervisibility.

“Take back your power” is Colon’s four-word summary of the rationale behind the decision to paint the house.

“Even they call it ‘the Pink House’ now,” she says, referring to the protesters.

Near the end of our conversation, a car pulls into the parking lot and a young woman emerges. She has come here alone. There’s a heaviness in her step as she approaches the clinic. The gloom of the sky seems to be resting solely on her shoulders. Hancock rises to greet her. She doesn’t have an appointment, we learn. And then she starts to sob.

Scruggs and Hancock invite her to sit down, produce bottled water out of thin air, and listen to her story. I record no details about the situation out of respect for her privacy, but I do overhear the escorts offering her information about her choices and stressing that they are, indeed, her choices to make.

The woman leaves with dry eyes but whatever she shared with the escorts has lingered.

Suddenly somber, Hancock gets up to go home. Work is over, the vests come off, and we disperse under a light drizzle.

But even from the next block, you can still see the Pink House through the fog.