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Q&A: Ruth Leitman on filming The Pink House, the frontline in the fight for abortion rights

Abortion rights advocates stand outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss., and attempt to shout down a group of abortion opponents, on Thursday, July 7, 2022.
Rogelio V. Solis
In this file photo, abortion rights advocates stand outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss., and attempt to shout down a group of abortion opponents, on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

Monday, June 24, marks two years since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization reversed Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to an abortion.

Since then, nearly all states in the South have banned access to most abortions.

Now, a new, award-winning documentary, "No One Asked You," is telling the story of Jackson Women's Health, the former clinic at the center of the case, and the Pink House Defenders, the group of volunteers who helped care for patients entering and exiting the clinic.

The documentary from director, filmmaker and activist Ruth Leitman follows comedian Lizz Winstead — co-creator of The Daily Show — and her team, Abortion Access Front, as they travel across the U.S. to support abortion clinic staff.

On the anniversary of the Dobbs decision, Leitman is screening the documentary in several cities in an event dubbed "Overturniversary." Jackson and New Orleans are on the itinerary, with screenings taking place at Duling Hall and Junk Drawer Coffee, respectively.

The Gulf States Newsroom's Maya Miller sat down with Leitman to talk about the process of filming the documentary over seven years, her experience at The Pink House and more.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

So, Ruth, where were you when you first learned about the Dobbs decision?

Ruth Leitman is the director of "No One Asked You."
Photo courtesy of Ruth Leitman
Ruth Leitman is the director of "No One Asked You."

June 24th is my only daughter's birthday, and she was planning a giant party. As we were planning that party, and as we were setting up for the party earlier that day [in 2022], is when I found out. I was in Chicago, which is where I live. I'm devastated.

I was devastated at the time for all the people that this would affect. And especially the people in Jackson that I've come to know and love during this time.

I was heartbroken. I think it was always really clear that one case, one state, was going to be that race to the bottom, and that turned out to be Mississippi.

Tell me about this project and how you even came onto this. It's been seven long years — how have you changed since picking up the camera and spending so much time with abortion justice fighters to today, having your film out in the world? 

Sure. So, I had an abortion and then I had another one a year later. I was a teenager; I was in an abusive relationship and I know that having that abortion helped me on a path to my own destiny and to become a filmmaker, a storyteller and a photographer.

When I finally had that abortion, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. At the time, as a teenager, I wanted to be a photographer, and that's what I did for a long time. I knew that decision was a life-changing decision for me, just like it is for anyone else who has an abortion.

Could you describe The Pink House and what it was like to film there before and after the case was decided?

The first time that we filmed at the Pink House was in 2017, and it was early in the Vagical Mystery Tour that follows Lizz Winstead and Abortion Access Front, going through all the battleground states in the South and the Midwest. As time went on, we would check in with the Pink House Defenders.

We started to see things escalate. People would come from all over the place. It became the place where if there was an event, like the anniversary of Roe, all the people who we had seen around the country would show up there. [It] didn't matter if it was raining, there was church — “Church at the Gates of Hell,” as they like to call it.

When the buffer zone happened, we started to see things escalate. One of the things we were observing, as well, was how many people were stepping up to help the Pink House Defenders. We would be there on some days when there would be 50 or 100 people and on some days when there would be 15 people.

And then, we started to see things change in the Pink House Defenders because they had just been through so much. By the time the Dobbs case was decided, they were just worn out.

There's this scene of Derenda Hancock, one of the Pink House Defenders, and she's outside of the Pink House where she and the Defenders are facing off with the anti-abortion protestors. It's tense, it's hot, it's loud, but they are determined to show up for their patients. What did it mean for you to be out in the field capturing those stories in those last days? 

It meant that it was one of those times where if I had not had a camera in front of my face, I would have either been swinging punches or I would have been crying. I just felt like the work that the Pink House Defenders did was unlike anything I had ever seen. They were so dedicated. Their days were so long in the heat — I'm talking about actual heat and this sort of tension heat that happened.

It was our worst fear and nightmare coming into play that [anti-abortion protestors] were so emboldened. The worse things got state by state, and the fact that the Supreme Court had taken the case, the antis became so emboldened and so mean and arrogant. I think that kind of hatred is really important for people to see.

For as hard as this was on all of us who were engaged in the fight, no one was more boots on the ground than Kim [Gibson] and Derenda, and the other Pink House Defenders. They were really on the front lines of all of this. We heard story after story of people who had traveled from really far, who didn't have the funds, who needed to come back for their second or third appointment. And they were just trying to do whatever it took to make sure that these people felt cared for and valued.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

Maya Miller is the reproductive health reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom