The Pink House : Up First : NPR

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST: In the state of Mississippi, there is only one clinic where you…



RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the state of Mississippi, there is only one clinic where you can get an abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED RECEPTIONIST: Yes, ma’am. That’s Mississippi law.

MARTIN: It’s known as the Pink House, in the capital city of Jackson.

UNIDENTIFIED RECEPTIONIST: Hold, please. Jackson Women’s Health.

MARTIN: This is UP FIRST Sunday. I’m Rachel Martin.

For months, our partners at NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans have been reporting on what overturning Roe v. Wade could mean in the Deep South. Banned is a new podcast from WWNO, and it tells the story of the Mississippi abortion law now before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Episode 2, they visit the Pink House, that lone clinic in Mississippi that’s at the heart of that Supreme Court case.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Here’s reporter Rosemary Westwood.

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ROSEMARY WESTWOOD, BYLINE: Abortions are common. One in 4 women in the U.S. will have one, but they’re often treated like a big secret. Still, the clinics where they happen have to go somewhere. In a quiet residential neighborhood in Jackson, Miss., there’s modest homes, a bougie coffee shop, a fancy boutique selling $300 blouses and, across the street, this.

COLEMAN BOYD: What would it take for you to give your baby life today? God has visited you. That baby’s a gift from God.

WESTWOOD: Jackson Women’s Health Organization looks like it could be a dentist office. But no one’s protesting outside the dentist. The ringleader of the protesters is Coleman Boyd, a local ER physician. He stands in a red ball cap and shouts at women entering the clinic. It’s a cold November morning. Clinic volunteers wearing rainbow vests shake a tambourine, trying and failing to drown Coleman out. He walks right up to the windows of cars pulling in, almost in front of their tires.

BOYD: Ma’am, would you have mercy on that sweet baby? We’re here in the name of Jesus to love you and love your baby.

WESTWOOD: The volunteers say, he’ll move; keep going.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: See, it’s not with the clinic. You can pull up if you like. Don’t worry.

BOYD: Your baby is my neighbor. You’re my neighbor.

WESTWOOD: Thank you.

BOYD: We’re here to love our neighbors. Our heart…

WESTWOOD: The patients inch by and park beside a huge cement building painted pink, bubblegum pink. The license plates hail from across the South – Mississippi, North Carolina, Louisiana. One volunteer, Derenda, wears aviator sunglasses and a pink sweatshirt under her rainbow vest. She’s been shepherding patients through this gauntlet of protesters for years. And she tells me this one unforgettable story from another morning about a patient scheduled for an appointment at 8:30 a.m.

DERENDA HANCOCK: And at 8:45, we had a car come pulling in about 90 miles an hour. It was a little car with, like, a taped-on bumper, and they had a doughnut tire.

WESTWOOD: Derenda went up to the car. A man and a woman were inside – in the back, two kids’ car seats. Derenda asked if they had an appointment.

HANCOCK: She said, yes, ma’am, but we had a flat. I’d seen the doughnut tire, and I’m like, well, did you call? Then she held up her phone and said her phone was dead. She didn’t have her charger with her.

WESTWOOD: Derenda told the couple they might not get in.

HANCOCK: And the gentleman said, ma’am, please; you have to see her today. He said, I took off work, and we live two hours away. I said, well, you could probably reschedule for tomorrow. He said, ma’am, I can’t take off work again.

WESTWOOD: Another volunteer said the doctor could squeeze them in, but hurry.

HANCOCK: She said, yes, ma’am, I just need a minute. And I saw they were digging around in the console and in the glove box.

WESTWOOD: Derenda told them they needed to go right now. Anti-abortion protesters were yelling.

HANCOCK: If you do this, you’re still going to be the mother. You’re just going to be the mother of a dead baby.

WESTWOOD: They got closer to the clinic door.

HANCOCK: And she stopped again. And she said, ma’am. She opened her hands, and there was a stack of bills in her hands and a big pile of change. She whispered to me, do you think they’ll take 149? And I said, excuse me? I’m a dollar short. Will they take $149? And I took a deep breath, and I said, of course they will, honey, but let’s just not have to do that. So I went and grabbed her a dollar out of my purse and gave it to her. I said, come on, we’ve got to get you in there.

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WESTWOOD: This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely issue a decision that will end the constitutional right to an abortion in the United States, paving the way for half of U.S. legislatures to ban nearly all abortions.

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WESTWOOD: I’m Rosemary Westwood, and this is Banned. Last time, we talked about the law at the heart of this case, Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. The plaintiff in the case is right here – the one clinic women can come to get an abortion in the state of Mississippi. This is Episode 2, The Pink House.

Inside the Pink House in the waiting room, bright morning sunlight streams in through large windows. A dozen women sit in chairs lining the walls under paintings of flowers and birds.

UNIDENTIFIED RECEPTIONIST: Yes, ma’am. That’s Mississippi law. Hold, please. Jackson Women’s Health.

WESTWOOD: A receptionist books appointments on the phone, which is always ringing.

UNIDENTIFIED RECEPTIONIST: Yes, ma’am, we do.

WESTWOOD: The women are mostly staring at their cell phones, but one of them looks at me and my microphone and asks what I’m doing here. This is Natalie (ph). She has long, dark hair in loose curls, long nails painted a blackish purple, dark eyes above a COVID mask. Natalie has driven here to Jackson, 3 hours away from where she lives in a suburb of New Orleans. New Orleans has an abortion clinic, one of three in Louisiana. But those clinics are overwhelmed with women coming from Texas who have a Texas abortion ban to contend with. More on that in a later episode.

Anyway, the upshot for Natalie is to get an appointment near her, she would have to wait weeks. And Natalie can’t wait because to get a legal abortion, the clock is ticking. I’ve spent a lot of years reporting from abortion clinics and talking to women getting abortions. Most have no interest in talking to a journalist. But the ones who do are like Natalie, eager to speak about something they often keep secret.

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WESTWOOD: Natalie is the daughter of Honduran immigrants. She found out she was pregnant a few weeks ago. She’s in her early 30s, and it’s not a good time to have a baby. For one, she’s already a mom.

NATALIE: I have four daughters. I have a 10, 9, 8 and a 5-year-old. They’re all beautiful. They’re all smart.

WESTWOOD: Right before COVID hit, Natalie left her husband, the father of her kids. She says there was domestic abuse. Then Natalie lost her job in the pandemic. And then when Hurricane Ida ripped through her town in August, she lost most of what she owned. For months, she and her daughters have been living out of a room at her aunt’s small house, which is filled with other family. Most of their belongings are in her truck.

NATALIE: So it’s kind of like we’re living out of my truck with staying with my aunt.

WESTWOOD: She had to take time off a new job as a medical assistant at a family clinic to drive up here. The trip is costing hundreds of dollars in gas and clinic fees. She’s paying for it with her first full paycheck. Natalie says she believes in the right to choose an abortion. And by the time most women get to the doors of an abortion clinic, the vast majority have already made up their minds. But Natalie is different. She’s not sure what she’ll do.

NATALIE: It’s, like, an emotional decision, but I’m just trying to do the best decision that I can make right now, considering everything that’s going on in the world.

WESTWOOD: The pandemic, her divorce, losing her job and her home after surviving Hurricane Ida. Natalie is here because under state law, she needs two appointments to get an abortion in Mississippi. So she’s sitting in the waiting room taking the first step.

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WESTWOOD: Tens of thousands of women like Natalie have passed through the Pink House since it opened in 1996. On the day I visit, the majority of women sitting in the waiting room are Black, which corresponds with state data. White women get abortions, too. They’re just far more likely to travel out of state, one study found. Keeping the clinic running is the job of one woman, Shannon Brewer, the director.

SHANNON BREWER: I’m running behind today actually because…

WESTWOOD: She’s a natural boss, warm and a little intimidating. No time for dancing around things – just get to the point. She dresses for comfort – flowy shirts, fuzzy pink boots, her hair in tight black ringlets. Shannon sits behind her desk. Her eyes constantly flick over to a big screen attached to the wall.

BREWER: I have to look at that. That’s the security camera. It just shows you everything that’s going on around the clinic, inside and out.

WESTWOOD: Shannon uses 11 camera feeds to watch the protesters outside. You can hear them from her office. On a shelf behind her, there’s a coffee mug stamped FBI, a gift from an agent. The bureau keeps tabs on domestic terror threats to the clinic. I asked Shannon to show me around.

BREWER: This is a surgical hall. This is the two surgery rooms. This is the sterilization room, the clean sterilization room. That’s the recovery room. And this is, like, a secondary room that we use for counseling and different stuff.

WESTWOOD: Clinic regulations have been stacking up since the 1980s, covering everything from detailed information on patients – including their race, address and the date of their last period – to the width of hallways and how far a clinic is from a church or school. All these regulations stem from laws passed by anti-abortion activists, claiming the laws protect women’s health. But they don’t.

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WESTWOOD: Compared to a lot of reasons we see a doctor, abortions are safe – safer than plastic surgery, safer than getting your wisdom teeth out. And when you’re pregnant, abortions are safer than giving birth. The risk of dying from childbirth is 14 times greater than the risk of dying from an abortion. That’s nationally. In Mississippi, the chance a mother will die from childbirth is even higher, especially if you’re Black.

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WESTWOOD: All these laws passed to make abortion safer – what they end up doing is complicating the process. It used to be a woman’s first appointment at the Pink House took about an hour. Now that same appointment takes all morning.

BREWER: You have to make sure every single thing is filled out on the paperwork. All of these things have to be done per patient. And if it’s not done, then guess what? Now you’re not abiding by the law, and now you’ve got problems.

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WESTWOOD: In her office, Shannon sits at her desk covered with paperwork. Behind her is a bookshelf stacked with binders full of documents for inspections. Those can happen at any time. The Department of Health doesn’t have to tell Shannon when they’re coming.

BREWER: They go through everything. They check everything. Most of the stuff that’s on this shelf, the books and everything – most of this stuff pertains to the health department.

WESTWOOD: Shannon is scrupulous about following all these laws, but it’s also her job to fight them.

BREWER: You don’t let them say, we’re going to pass this law, this law, this law, this law, and you have to abide by them. You fight that. You fight that those laws have nothing to do with women. You fight. That’s how we survive. You just continue, continue, continue to fight. Yeah, you get tired of fighting. Everybody gets tired of fighting. But when you stop fighting, who wins? They win.

WESTWOOD: It’s an exhausting job. And I asked Shannon, why work here? She fidgets with her long acrylic nails as she talks, looks directly at me. The first answer is Shannon doesn’t care what people think about her. But the other reason – she’s been there.

BREWER: I’m saying, I’m a woman. I understand. I’ve been through the struggle. I’ve been through so many struggles with kids, with being without, with abusive mates and, you know, trying to raise kids on my own and not knowing where I’m going to live.

WESTWOOD: Shannon has six kids, all born when she was in her 20s. As a young mom, she considered getting an abortion once, but she was too far along in her pregnancy.

BREWER: So I understand. When a lot of these women come in here, I get it, not because I heard about it or read about it, but because I actually lived it.

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WESTWOOD: I leave Shannon eyeing the cameras.

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WESTWOOD: It’s taken all morning, but Natalie’s appointment is finally done.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let’s go down the hallway here.

NATALIE: OK.

WESTWOOD: We walk down the hallway to a counseling room to talk. Natalie has seen the Pink House’s doctor, gone through all her paperwork. She received the state-mandated ultrasound. And when she was asked if she wanted to see the image, also required by the state of Mississippi, Natalie said yes. It was a tiny, dark blot on the screen. But seeing this small smudge, Natalie imagined more – a baby.

NATALIE: Like, it’s not just a little blob or something. Like, it’s an actual human being in there. It makes you want to lean towards keeping it, I would say, and not getting rid of it.

WESTWOOD: Natalie’s aunt and mom have both had abortions and regretted them. If she has one, she wonders.

NATALIE: Am I going to regret this for the rest of my life?

WESTWOOD: She also wonders if she’d be committing the ultimate sin. Natalie’s parents raised her with Catholic and Methodist beliefs.

NATALIE: You look at a baby as a gift from God, like a blessing. So – and then taking that away, like, you think about the consequences. Like, am I going to get punished?

WESTWOOD: What if one day, when she hasn’t lost her home to a hurricane, she can’t get pregnant? As we talk, Natalie goes back and forth on what she actually believes. Are these doubts her beliefs or just ideas she’s grown up with?

NATALIE: I’m kind of just, like, winging it type of thing, hoping, praying to God, like, don’t punish me because I just can’t do it right now.

WESTWOOD: Remember, by Mississippi law, Natalie needs to come to the clinic twice to get an abortion. As of today, her first visit is done. We stopped the interview. We’ve been talking for an hour, and she’s got a long drive ahead of her.

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WESTWOOD: Next time on Banned, the story of how the Pink House keeps its doors open.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And fetuses were all over the TV, and I remember just being incensed.

BREWER: She made me see that my voice means something and people would listen.

WESTWOOD: What exactly are you afraid of?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Of being shot and killed.

WESTWOOD: Banned is a production of WWNO and WRKF. It’s reported and produced by me, Rosemary Westwood, edited and mixed by the extraordinary Eve Abrams. Our news director is Patrick Madden, extra support from Priska Neely, engineering by George Ingmire, digital assistance from Katelyn Umholtz and Orlando Flores Jr. Our logo was shot by Kezia Setyawan and designed by Sarah Warrender. Theme music by Christopher Sheard, Eric Nelson and Ashlae Blume. Other music provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Our website is bannedpodcast.org, and it was designed by Jon Hebert. This podcast is for Gloria (ph).

MARTIN: You can hear other episodes from WWNO’s Banned wherever you get your podcasts. UP FIRST will be back tomorrow with all the news you need to know. Have a great rest of your Sunday.

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