Diane Derzis carries a Taser, a Smith and Wesson and a nickname: “abortion queen.”
“It doesn’t in any way injure my self-confidence,” said Derzis, who owns Mississippi’s last abortion clinic and three others in the U.S. South. “I kind of like being the queen.”
Her dominion, though, is shrinking. Derzis’s Birmingham clinic was shut for what Alabama health officials called “a history of deficiencies” in what she said was a witch hunt. Now, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization may close, thanks to a law Mississippi’s Republican-led Legislature passed requiring that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
Derzis, 58, and her lawyers are trying to prevent the state from becoming the first with no abortion clinic, and argued in U.S. District Court yesterday that the requirement is unconstitutional because it will effectively ban the procedure. Judge Daniel P. Jordan III ruled that the law will remain blocked as he considers new material filed by the state.
Derzis, seen as a hero by allies and an enabler of murder by the anti-abortion movement, bought the Jackson clinic two years ago. She had become known in the region after Eric Robert Rudolph bombed her New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic in Birmingham in 1998, punctuating years of attacks on clinics. The blast killed an off-duty police officer and maimed a nurse.
Politicians now present the greatest threat to Derzis’s professional survival. States passed a record 92 abortion restrictions last year, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which compiles reproductive-health data. Mississippi joined nine other states with laws requiring admitting privileges when Republican Governor Phil Bryant signed the bill in April.
In the two years that Derzis has owned the Jackson clinic, she has been the largely unnamed force behind a business that lawmakers have made a focus of state politics.
When Bryant signed the law argued in court yesterday, he said he would “continue to work to make Mississippi abortion- free,” according to Derzis’s suit. Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves says on his website that the law “not only protects the health of the mother but should close the only abortion clinic in Mississippi.”
None of the state’s 120 hospitals is licensed as an abortion facility -- meaning each provides fewer than 10 per month or 100 per year, according to the state health department.
The state, which had 14 providers in 1981, is one of five with a single clinic. Derzis’s facility provided 2,378 in the year ending June 30, 2011, according to Betty Thompson, a spokeswoman.
Charlotte Taft, who directs the Abortion Care Network, a Washington nonprofit that seeks to reduce stigma around the practice, treated Derzis’s Birmingham employees for emotional trauma after the 1998 bombing. She says Derzis and she are among a shrinking pool of baby boomers who joined the movement after Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing the right to an abortion.
“At this point, our greatest challenge is challenges from the states and that’s what’s happening to Diane Derzis,” said Taft. “If anyone can stand up to this assault it could be Diane.”
Derzis never unlisted her phone numbers or addresses or made a habit of wearing a bullet-proof vest.
“You can’t think about it,” she said. “You can’t live like that or you couldn’t live. When you hide from those people, that’s what makes them come after you. They know I’m as crazy as they are.”
Derzis says she can’t remember when she started carrying a firearm.
“If I’m going, I’m going to take some of them with me,” she told the Associated Press in 1995, after vowing to replace the Beretta pistol she had at the time with a semiautomatic that she now carries in her purse.
Long a magnet for protesters, the Jackson facility requires patients to leave backpacks and purses outside and be buzzed in by an attendant. The metal detector -- a reminder of past violence -- was removed a few months ago, Derzis said.
Derzis credits the anti-abortion movement for creating an environment where the practice is shunned, especially in the South.
“They have patience,” she says of her opponents. “They are a force to be reckoned with.”
One of those forces is Terri Herring, national director of the Mississippi-based Pro Life America Network, who has lobbied state lawmakers since 1986. While Derzis isn’t nearly as visible as the Jackson clinic’s doctors or staff, Herring says, she symbolizes an industry that hurts women.
“This is not a personal thing for me,” said Herring, who helped get the new law passed. “Our goals are not to personally attack anyone.”
Derzis, who wears red lipstick and shoulder-length curly blond hair, was born in California and raised in Elkton, Virginia. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Montevallo, south of Birmingham, and a law degree -- though she didn’t take the bar exam and has never practiced -- from the Birmingham School of Law.
Since 2006, Derzis and her second husband, Sam Hess, have maintained a long-distance relationship. He visits a few times a month from Virginia, where he works on their horse and cattle farm.
Derzis, who has no children, had an abortion in a doctor’s office in 1974 when she was in college and married to her first husband. It was a hostile experience during which she was meant to feel shamed, she says. Shortly after, she made it her mission to make the procedure more comfortable for clients.
She operates the for-profit Jackson clinic and facilities in Birmingham; Columbus, Georgia; and Richmond, Virginia. Her investors include doctors and, until her death two weeks ago, her mother.
Derzis sees her fight to keep the Jackson clinic open as the highest stakes battle yet.
“My crown’s a little tarnished at this point,” the abortion queen said. “But I’m not dead.”
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