November 23, 2013 8:23:45 PM
JACKSON -- Abortion clinic owner Diane Derzis has stared down protesters, laughed off those who call her "baby killer" and smiled through clenched teeth while bantering with people who want to close her centers in the South.
She has been an abortion rights advocate for decades and owned clinics since 1996, but Derzis is facing some of the biggest political and legal pressure she has ever seen. She spars with pastors and politicians alike, and her latest fight is to keep open her Mississippi clinic, the last one remaining in the state.
"If they think they're going to make me feel badly about what I do . not gonna happen," said Derzis, a 59-year-old Virginia native who has lived in Alabama for decades.
Derzis is in a legal battle over a 2012 state law that requires the Mississippi clinic's physicians to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. The fight is similar to one playing out in Texas, where a third of the state's abortion clinics have closed since a law there was enacted earlier this year. The U.S. Supreme Court said this past week the Texas law can remain in effect while a lawsuit is heard.
The laws are the latest in a series of state-level restrictions across country. Supporters say they are designed to protect women's health, while opponents say they chip away at the right to abortion established 40 years ago by the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.
Earlier this month, outside Derzis' clinic in Mississippi's capital city, police officers tried to keep a couple dozen protesters and clinic supporters apart. Derzis stood on the sidewalk as the Rev. Philip "Flip" Benham, one of her most vocal critics, asked her if she'd repent and said he would pray for her.
"I just love prayers. I'm the glad recipient of prayers," Derzis said, looking past Benham.
In addition to the facility in Jackson, Derzis owns a clinic in Columbus, Ga., and one in Richmond, Va.
She owned and operated a Birmingham, Ala., clinic when it was bombed by Eric Rudolph in 1998. It was rebuilt and she still owns the building.
Derzis agreed to close the clinic in 2012 after the state Health Department found numerous health violations, including allowing unlicensed workers to administer medications.
A physician then ran a clinic in the building, but a judge closed it in August because the facility wasn't licensed for abortions.
Benham, who heads up Operation Save American, a North Carolina-based anti-abortion group, said Derzis is "a mess." He considered the judge's action in Alabama as an answer to his prayers. "Finally, finally, finally, they closed that pit," he said. "It's a filthy, disgusting abortion mill."
Benham's group identifies Mississippi as one of its five "states of refuge" -- places with limited access to abortion, and where they hope the procedure will become completely unavailable. The group says the others are Arkansas, North and South Dakota and Wyoming.
Just as protesters say they are following God's will by praying outside clinics and trying to talk women out of abortions, Derzis says she, too, is led by divine guidance to provide women a safe place to terminate pregnancies.
"I feel like . God wants me to do this job," said Derzis, who has a raspy smoker's voice and a penchant for brightly painted fingernails and chunky jewelry.
She started working as an abortion clinic counselor shortly after the first clinic opened in Alabama in the 1970s.
Derzis talks openly about the abortion she had when she was 20, newly married and in college. She said didn't want children, and knew immediately she wanted to end the pregnancy. Derzis said her mother told her she'd regret it, but she hasn't. She said she was about 12 weeks along when she had the procedure, and the doctor was gruff and disrespectful.
"I thank God every day I had that abortion," said Derzis, who later divorced and doesn't have children. "It was not a great experience, but you know what? I had a safe abortion. And that's what counts."
Derzis has been under increasing pressure since Mississippi's Republican governor, Phil Bryant, signed the admitting privileges law. Bryant has declared he wants abortions to end in Mississippi.
Jackson Women's Health Organization, Derzis' clinic, is staffed by out-of-state OB-GYNs who travel to Mississippi several times a month. Derzis said efforts to get admitting privileges for them have been rebuffed, either because hospitals are run by religious groups that oppose abortion or because hospitals simply won't grant them to out-of-state physicians.
The clinic is in a neighborhood with trendy restaurants and clothing boutiques. The cherry-pink, one-story building sits on a grassy, elevated corner lot with a fence.
Derzis estimated the clinic sees about 180 to 250 patients a month. When it's open, it's typical for abortion opponents to stand outside singing hymns and praying -- and for clinic escorts to walk women to and from the parking lot, frequently with music blaring from a boom box to drown out the opponents' voices.
A federal judge allowed the Mississippi law to take effect in summer 2012, but blocked the state from closing the clinic while its doctors attempt to get admitting privileges. Mississippi is asking the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to overturn the judge's ruling.
Derzis is getting legal help from the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which has sued Mississippi and Texas to try to block the admitting-privileges laws.
Sunsara Taylor, of New York, is spokeswoman for Stop Patriarchy, a group that supports "abortion on demand and without apology." She said Derzis is doing important work.
"It really matters tremendously -- the courage, the bravery, the self-sacrifice to keep women's right to abortion available, especially in places where the whole state apparatus is so dead set against women's reproductive rights," Taylor said this month in Jackson.