Only abortion clinic in Miss. fights to stay open

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JACKSON, Miss. — It can't meet the mandates of a 2012 state law and the governor wants to shut it down, but Mississippi's only abortion clinic is not about to quietly retreat.

The clinic's owners are fighting on a legal front, with a federal lawsuit against the state, and supporters and staff are trying to make inroads on site — urging patients to call elected officials and peppering state-required counseling with their own views and information.

Protesters, too, are zeroing in on the clinic. A national anti-abortion group, Operation Save America, has targeted Mississippi as a state where it hopes to end abortion, and it has sent people from as far as Colorado and Nevada to protest. Congregants from local churches pray outside the clinic several days a week. Some hold fetus posters and use microphones to call out to patients.

Volunteers in yellow vests escort women past protesters and into Jackson Women's Health Organization, a cherry pink building in a neighborhood with upscale restaurants and funky clothing stores.

The 2012 Mississippi law requires each doctor who performs abortions at the clinic to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Diane Derzis, the clinic's owner, says all hospitals have refused.

She sees the law, and restrictions enacted in others states, as attempts by anti-abortion activists to prompt a court fight to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion.

"That's what the anti's want to do — they want Roe v. Wade revisited," Derzis said.

Last summer, the clinic filed its federal lawsuit seeking to permanently block the admitting privileges law. A federal judge allowed the law to take effect in July but prohibited the state from punishing the clinic as it sought to comply. In April, the judge blocked the state from holding a license revocation hearing while the lawsuit is pending. A trial is at least two months away, or the judge could decide the case without testimony, based on written arguments that are still being submitted.

Nationwide, each state has at least one facility where abortions are performed. Mississippi is one of only a few with a single clinic remaining. In a speech to Planned Parenthood's national conference in April, President Barack Obama singled out Mississippi as one of the states where he sees "an assault on women's rights," with attempts to restrict abortion or limit access to birth control.

Supporters of the Mississippi law say it's designed to protect women's health, but Republican Gov. Phil Bryant also has said he wants to end abortion in the state. "My goal, of course, is to shut it down," he said of the clinic in January.

Admitting privileges as outlined in the law can be difficult to obtain — many hospitals won't give them to out-of-state physicians. The two doctors who perform abortions at Jackson Women's Health Organization live in other states.

Alabama is enacting a similar law this year. Derzis — who also owns women's clinics in Alabama, where she lives; Virginia, where she grew up; and Georgia — said such requirements are designed to limit access by giving hospitals veto power over any physician's ability to work at a clinic.

"Maybe I should do a questionnaire now for these patients: 'What would happen if we weren't here?"' Derzis said. "I think we all know the answer. Those that have money will be able to go out (of state). Those that don't are going to have babies."

The House member who wrote the 2012 Mississippi law, Republican Sam Mims of McComb, opposes abortion and said the law is designed for patient safety.

"We hope and pray that nothing goes wrong, but this is a very serious medical procedure," said Mims, chairman of the House Public Health Committee. "I believe that the physicians ought to be able to follow a patient to a local hospital if something happens."

At the Jackson clinic, an iron fence separates the sidewalk from the building's main entrance, a glass door surrounded by a wall of tinted windows. Clinic volunteers keep a stereo blasting outside to create a barrier between protesters and patients.

"Mommy, why don't you love me? Mommy, why are you going to kill me today?" protester Corrie Zastrow said on a recent day, a tiny microphone hooked over one ear.

Chet Gallagher, a former Las Vegas police officer who's with Operation Save America, said he prays for God to bring down the walls of the Jackson clinic. "We know every day they're open, they're killing children," he said.

But clinic escort Sarah Roberts, tired of protesters' behavior, doesn't see them as pro-life. "They're pro-birth," she said.

Inside the clinic, patients must undergo counseling at least 24 hours before an abortion — a state requirement that's been in place for more than a decade.

Dr. Willie J. Parker, an OB-GYN who travels from Chicago about once a month to work there, told patients at a recent session that he'd give them the information as required by law, but he'd also give his own medical opinion.

The 14 patients — black and white, teenager to middle-aged — sat in a single row of chairs that lined the room as Parker and longtime clinic employee Betty Thompson spoke.

"How many children you want to have is up to you. How many children you don't want to have is up to you," Thompson said early in the session. "It's not up to the state of Mississippi."

A few of the women chuckled as Thompson added: "I don't see them regulating men's reproductive health, do you? No. They can get as much Viagra as they want, they can have as many penile implants as they want."

As required, Parker told the women that the state can collect child support if they're considering abortion because they think they can't afford a baby.

"Good luck with that," the doctor deadpanned, and some patients rolled their eyes.

A longstanding state law says patients must be told that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, but Parker told the group that the claim is bogus. The law also says patients must be told they could experience complications such as internal bleeding, but Parker said they could have the same issues with full-term pregnancy and childbirth.

Republican U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who persuaded colleagues to put the breast cancer information into Mississippi law when he was a state senator, said in a phone interview later that he's not surprised Parker would downplay the risks of abortion.

"This is a doctor who's flying in from out of state, making money taking the lives of Mississippi children," Nunnelee said.

Parker, 50, grew up Baptist in Alabama and said he practiced medicine for several years before he started performing abortions. He has worked in several places, including at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Washington, D.C. Like most of the patients he saw during two counseling sessions in Mississippi one day recently, he is African-American."It's very important to me to make sure that women who look like my mother, sisters or friends that I grew up with have access to this care," Parker told the patients in Jackson. "It shouldn't be that simply because you live in Mississippi that you don't have the same health care that you can get if you lived in California."