Shannon Brewer’s eyes dart to a grid of grainy images on a wide, black screen above her desk at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization (JWHO). Live footage shows a large truck creeping into the clinic’s parking lot, its side emblazoned with a pair of blue, ghostly baby feet and the words Where are our children? Brewer doesn’t recognize the driver. Her spine stiffens.
As the director and de facto head of security at the last abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi, Brewer is not easily spooked. In her two decades there, she has seen bomb scares and stalking incidents, and protesters getting in fights with her staff. She keeps the number of an FBI contact amid a sea of sticky notes beside her desk. But this year, she says, everything feels more intense. More dangerous. More consequential.
Her clinic, known as the Pink House for its bubble-gum-colored exterior walls, is at the epicenter of the fight over abortion access, in Mississippi and the country. On Dec. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, about a Mississippi state law banning nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. If the court allows the law to remain in effect, the decision will effectively hollow out Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to an abortion before fetal viability. “This is not gonna just affect Mississippi,” Brewer says. “It’s gonna affect women everywhere.”
Five years ago, this moment was unthinkable. Even the Supreme Court’s decision to take up a case that directly challenges Roe would have been considered outlandish, legal scholars say. But the landscape has shifted rapidly. Over the past year, GOP-controlled state legislatures have passed a record-breaking 106 abortion restrictions, including a Texas statute that bans nearly all abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy. Conservative state and federal judges have allowed some of those laws to stand, while President Trump’s appointment of three Justices—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett—has put Roe at risk. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will come before the most conservative bench in decades.
Anti-abortion activists are energized. In a normal year, the Pink House has its share of regular protesters, but ahead of the December hearing, “abortion tourists,” as the clinic volunteers call them, have begun showing up on the sidewalk every day. Melissa Fowler, chief program officer at the National Abortion Federation, which tracks threats to abortion clinics, says she’s heard from members “who report an escalation in anti-abortion rhetoric, criminal activities and the intensity of activities” since last year.
Brewer herself has become a lightning rod. “She thinks she’s doing a good thing,” says Barbara Beavers, who was trying to discourage patients from entering the Pink House in October. “But she’s killing babies.” Coleman Boyd, a local physician who regularly protests outside the clinic with his wife and children, also calls out Brewer by name. She and her staff, he says, “have a heart to kill.”
It’s in this context that Brewer, one eye still trained on the security footage, walks out the clinic’s front door and strides over to the unfamiliar truck, idling a few yards from the building. She exchanges words with the driver, then rolls her eyes and flashes a nod of assurance to her staff. The truck is part of a national anti-abortion group’s protest that evening. Nothing to worry about.
Back at her desk, in front of a sign reading Queen Warrior, Brewer considers the enormity of her role in the moment—the last director of her state’s last abortion clinic, just weeks before the most momentous high-court hearing on abortion in a generation. “I’m going to appreciate the time that we have,” she says. “Once we go to court, every day that we are open and see patients and get to talk to them—it’s like we don’t know if this is the last time.”
Abortion wasn’t always such a partisan subject in America. Nearly a half-century ago, when the Supreme Court decided Roe, the ruling wasn’t as polarizing as it is now, says Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University and an expert on the legal history of abortion. Republicans kept the issue at arm’s length, wary of anti-abortion activists who they saw as “wild children,” she says; Democrats rarely discussed it at all.