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Only abortion clinic in Miss. fights to stay open

Wednesday - 5/15/2013, 3:10pm  ET

Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- 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.

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