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One Nation, Divided under God

December 12, 2008

Birmingham, AL –  From inside this box-shaped maroon-painted building on the South side of Birmingham, Diane Derzis has been providing abortion and contraception services to the women of the American south since 1975. Her clinic, New Woman All Women Health Care, sits right across the street from Al’s, an exquisitely greasy Greek deli. The facility was the very first in the state, and Derzis, renowned for her vociferous activism, has been dubbed “the abortion queen” of Alabama.

Today there are five such clinics in the state, and only one in neighboring Mississippi. As a result, women who choose to have an abortion must travel for hours, sometimes for days. “Overall, we see around 2,000 patients a year,” says Derzis, who oversees a staff of 12 employees, including five physicians.

Diane Derzis

Diane Derzis

“We have women from their early teens to their sixties, rich and poor, black and white, democrats and republicans,” Derzis explains as she enjoys a smoke on a bright Saturday fall afternoon sitting outside of Al’s Deli. However, since an abortion costs about $425, one group of people rarely seen at Derzis’ clinic comprises the very poor and uninsured.

Diane Derzis is an assertive woman with eye-catching short hair and an unabashed taste for cigarettes. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a Law degree from the University of Alabama. She is a native of Virginia, where her husband resides and where the couple owns a farm and a second abortion clinic.

Derzis became involved in the abortion rights movement in her early twenties, after undergoing the procedure herself in 1974, a year after Roe v. Wade was decided. Roe v. Wade is the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that established a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy as an integral part to her right to privacy. The Court established that this right should be upheld until the moment “the fetus becomes ‘viable.’” Viable was determined to mean the point at which the fetus is “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.” The Supreme Court set this viability requirement at somewhere between 24 and 28 weeks. That requirement for abortions now varies on a state-by-state basis.

Since she opened her practice, Derzis has had to deal with a plethora of families and individuals; from married couples who cannot afford the sixth child, to single women who work full-time and go to college, to thirteen-year-old girls who have been the victims of violence or are, more simply, sexually active at a very premature age. The only thing all these people have in common is that they have decided not to carry a pregnancy to term. “One time, a car with a license plate saying ‘choose life’ pulled in our parking lot,” Derzis recalls, “I thought it was a pro-life activist who wanted to protest.

” Instead, a middle-age woman got off the vehicle, walked inside the clinic and filled out the form to have an abortion. Derzis asked the woman about the license plate. To Derzis’ surprise, the patient simply answered: “That was before, before I got pregnant!”

In spite of the wide variety of women who choose to terminate a pregnancy at some point in their lives — independent of race, religion and class — abortion still carries a social stigma, especially in the heavily conservative – Christian south. In fact, the so-called “pro-life movement” has been growing in recent years and has become increasingly outspoken. During the campaign for the 2008 presidential election, anti-abortion activists were to be seen at all the most important events including the Democratic National Convention in Denver and the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. They carried vivid life-size photos depicting late-term aborted fetuses and bluntly accused then Presidential nominee Barack Obama of being a “baby killer.”

Judy and Lisa sit on picnic chairs outside ‘Planned Parenthood,’ the only other abortion clinic in Birmingham. They move their fingers along the beads of their rosaries and seem absorbed in deep meditation.

Judy and Lisa of Forty Days for Life

Judy and Lisa of Forty Days for Life

They are members of 40 Days for Life, an anti-abortion initiative that takes place at regular intervals in cities across the U.S. and all the way to the American Samoa. Placed next to Judy and Lisa’s chairs is a large poster portraying an all-American family. At its center, is the silhouette of a child with no face, suggesting that a rightful member is missing, having been the subject of an undue abortion. “We are not here to cause any problem, we are peaceful,” Judy explains. Not at ease with the media, they decline to give their full names and speak to an anonymous campaign coordinator on the phone for a long time before answering any questions.

40 Days for Life began as a local campaign in College Station, Texas, in 2004. “After that first campaign we realized that the number of abortions dropped 28% locally,” says Director for Outreach Shawn Carney. The organization went national in 2007 and, since then, it has conducted three full-fledged campaigns, the latest instance of which occurred at the height of the presidential race in September and October.

Overall, the volunteers of this Christian, yet non-denominational, initiative have appeared in 204 cities in 49 states. The tenets of the movement are: prayer and fasting, constant vigil and community outreach. The 40 Days volunteers rotate every few hours in front of abortion clinics and insure a ‘round-the-clock presence, seven days a week, rain or shine, for forty straight days. “We want women to know they have alternatives and we also try to comfort those who come out having had an abortion,” Carney explains. Simply with its presence, Carney says, 40 Days for Life has changed the mind of over a thousand women thus far and secured “1,100 saves,” babies born after the mother decided to forgo the abortion. According to Carney, women who find themselves in those circumstances are looking for someone to stop them. “We are there to tell them that they are not alone,” he maintains.

Both Judy and Lisa are stay-home moms and sit outside Planned Parenthood wearing jeans and sweaters. To cover today’s watch they will drive 50 miles each way as their homes are in the distant suburbs. “I believe abortion is murder,” argues Judy, “and that Roe v. Wade should be overturned.” This gray-haired grandmother doesn’t admit any exception to her conviction, not in the case of rape nor in the case that a pregnancy might present a risk to the life of the mother. “Pro-life issues are my top priority,” echoes Lisa, the younger and the less talkative of the two.

Planned Parenthood of Birmingham, Alabama

Planned Parenthood of Birmingham, Alabama

Inside this branch of Planned Parenthood, in a hilly residential neighborhood of Birmingham and overlooking a quiet tree-lined street, the clinic’s CEO doesn’t mind the pair of eyes watching them 24 hours a day. “They are fairly harmless,” Barbara Buchanan says of the visitors who sit at her front door night and day. “The only problem is when they start engaging our clients while they are entering the facility, which they shouldn’t.” Planned Parenthood, the best known provider of women health services and with a presence in all 50 states, is a federation of affiliates operated by a local board of directors. In 2007 Buchanan saw a total of 4,000 women come through the door, for services that ranges from providing contraception and STD testing, to abortion.

Unlike Diane Derzis, who came to her profession very young, driven by personal experiences and a sense of activism, Buchanan arrived at Planned Parenthood only two years ago from the private industry. She holds an MBA and a Master in Public Administration from the University of Alabama, and has extensive management experience in the health care sector. “I’m a life-long card-carrying member of Planned Parenthood,” claims Buchanan. However she then clarifies that she took the job primarily because it represented a wonderful professional opportunity.

Although Buchanan’s protesters Judy and Lisa do not appear to harbor any plans to hurt or harm anybody, not all anti-abortion activists follow the same peaceful path. In fact abortion clinic bombings and slaying of doctors providing this procedure have often adorned the headline news.

Doctor David Gunn was the first one to lose his life, in Pensacola, Fla. On March 10 1993, Michael Griffin saw the doctor stepping out of his car in the parking lot of one of the clinics where Gunn used to work. Griffin shouted, “Don’t kill any more babies!” and shot the doctor three times in the back. New Woman All Women Health Care, Diane Derzis’ facility, was also bombed in 1978. Although nobody was killed, Emily Lyons, the nurse at the time of the attack, lost one eye. For his part, Shawn Carney defends the peaceful approach of 40 Days of Life as a new wave in the anti-abortion movement, claiming that his organization is making history. Everybody who offers to volunteer or work for the initiative must sign an agreement pledging that they will not resort to any form of violence.

The general dedication — which has often turned to rage and hostility – and renewed enthusiasm of the anti-abortion movement, is a little surprising if one considers the fact that the number of abortions performed in the U.S. has been steadily declining since a peak reached in 1990.

According to a 2005 study by the government agency Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1990 there were 1,429,247 registered cases of legally induced abortions, while in 2005 this figure was down to 820,151, just above the levels found in 1973 (615,831 cases), right when abortion was first made legal. Furthermore, the pro-abortion rights movement argues that general family planning, going well beyond abortion to include various forms of contraception and counseling, helps raise happier children and more stable and secure families. “Planned families are healthier, planned children are healthier,” argues Planned Parenthood’s Barbara Buchanan repeating the mantra that gives her organization its name.

Local governments however have been imposing more stringent restrictions. In Alabama, the state legislature recently passed a law requiring women to wait at least 24 hours between the moment they first check in at a clinic and the time when they can have the abortion.

This new regulation bears a particular burden for rural women, who must travel away from their homes to go to a health center, and need to either stay overnight or drive back to their towns and back to the clinic again. Or for those women who cannot take time off from work. For someone who can only check in for a first visit on a Saturday morning, the new law now means that she will have to wait until at least the following Saturday for the procedure to be done. The state-enforced delay can cause troubles for those women who might be close to the 17th week of pregnancy, the legal abortion term in the state.

Moreover, although clinics always provided counseling to their patients to ensure that they were aware of the significance of the decision, Alabama has now produced an extra set of videos and publications which abortion providers are required to show their clients prior to proceeding with an abortion. Such info material, extremely graphic, normally depicts images of fetuses at the late stages of a pregnancy, and is meant to prepare — some would say dissuade and discourage — women for an abortion. “It is so offensive; they think women are stupid and don’t know what a fetus looks like,” complains Diane Derzis.

In Derzis’ experience, very few patients are at all shaken by the explicit imagery that appears on the state-mandated info material. And only a small number of women will feel remorse and regrets after the procedure. “All studies show that women that have not been pressured into getting the abortion, but rather have chosen to do so independently, do not suffer from emotional distress afterwards,” she affirms.

New Woman All Women Health in Birmingham, Alabama

New Woman All Women Health in Birmingham, Alabama

According to Derzis, the belief that a woman who has already made up her mind on getting abortion can be convinced out of it is fundamentally wrong. The truth, Derzis maintains, is that a woman who has decided to terminate an unwanted pregnancy will do so regardless of what it takes. An extremely low number of women who arrive at an abortion clinic are willing to even consider alternatives, such as giving the born child up for adoption, despite being informed about such possibility. In a sense, the legalization of abortion in 1973 simply acknowledged a practice widely used even before and made it safer, guaranteeing the legal and sanitary conditions that would afford a woman to terminate a pregnancy in a facility properly equipped.

Shawn Carney disagrees. “First of all, making something legal doesn’t make it safer,” he says, claiming that the abortion procedure has changed relatively little since before 1973. “And, most importantly, something that might be safe doesn’t necessarily have to be good,” Carney argues, citing slavery as a practice that would not be dangerous but yet unquestionably intolerable. “Abortion is the most merciless act this country has, against the most innocent creature,” states Shawn Carney explaining that the mission of 40 Days for Life is not directly to overturn Roe v. Wade but rather to have a presence on the “frontline,’’ in the local communities where abortion actually takes place.

The intensity of the debate over one of the most controversial legal decisions in the history of the United States, and one that has found a prominent spot in the political discourse is unlikely to abate anytime in the near future, and this is probably the only thing that both sides agree on wholeheartedly.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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