Meridian Star

August 4, 2013

State of Ala trying again to close abortion clinic


Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM —

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — State regulators have been trying since 2012 to shut down an abortion clinic that was cited for rampant health violations, and a judge has set a hearing for Monday to decide whether it should remain open.

The Alabama Department of Public Health says longtime operator Diane Derzis is playing a legal shell game to keep open the clinic, located in a two-story pink building owned by a company composed of Derzis and an associate.

Derzis says the brick building isn't abortion clinic at all, but a doctor's office operated by a physician who rents the building from her. She says he performs fewer than 30 abortions a month. For state regulations for abortion clinics to apply, a facility must perform at least 30 procedures a month for at least two months of the year.

The building was undeniably the home of New Woman All Women Health Care in 1998, when abortion foe Eric Rudolph detonated a deadly bomb outside. Derzis — known to some critics as the "abortion queen" — shut down only briefly before reopening back then.

Derzis also owns clinics in Jackson, Miss., and Richmond, Va., and is fighting to keep those open as well. A women's center she operates in Columbus, Ga., has yet to face serious legal challenges, she said.

"They just haven't gotten to it yet," Derzis said in an interview Friday at the Birmingham site.

A Birmingham-area abortion opponent, Sarah Howell, said she hopes all of Derzis' operations are closed.

"They're not safe for women or preborn children," said Howell, assistant director of CEC for Life, an Episcopalian ministry that opposes abortion.

Alabama state attorneys say Dr. Bruce Norman has been performing abortions illegally in Derzis' building since she, partner Patrick Smith and their businesses agreed last year to surrender the license. They were cited for dozens of problems, including inadequate care for patients.

Government lawyers contend Derzis and associates have kept the Birmingham clinic going by switching names on legal documents. For a time they even used old websites and phone numbers to continue advertising the business, the state said.

"To allow the defendants to collectively act in this manner so as to avoid the board's licensing authority and oversight would disserve the board's interests by developing a blueprint for other similarly motivated persons and entities," the state argued in legal documents.

A state attorney handling the case declined to comment before the hearing. Lawyers say the outcome of the case shouldn't affect Alabama's four other abortion clinics.

Derzis argues the building is the office of Norman, described in court papers as renting the building from a company owned by Derzis and using it to perform abortions.

"It's not an abortion clinic, it's a doctor's office," she said.

Derzis, in a sworn statement provided to Circuit Judge Joseph Boohaker, also said her Georgia-based All Women's Healthcare of Columbus leases staff members to Norman at the Birmingham location.

The state of Alabama is asking Boohaker to shut down the facility without a hearing that could delve into its operations.

An attorney for Derzis asked the judge to hold a hearing on whether the operation is subject to state regulation. The center could remain open if the judge rules it isn't covered by state statutes as a clinic.

Christian activists who oppose abortion have filed court documents siding with the state. They also are organizing a campaign on Twitter asking a judge to side with the state.

A bomb that detonated outside the clinic more than 15 years ago killed a Birmingham police officer and critically injured a nurse. Rudolph is serving a life sentence for the Birmingham bombing and for the 1996 Olympic park bombing in Atlanta.

In Mississippi, a federal judge has set an Aug. 15 conference in a lawsuit in which Derzis' clinic there is fighting to remain open. The suit challenges a 2012 state law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

A similar law was passed by Alabama legislators this year but is on hold after being challenged in federal court, and a nearly identical law has prompted protests in Texas.

Derzis said her Virginia facility, A Capital Women's Clinic in Richmond, also is facing legal challenges from that state.