Abortion clinic owner in the South: ‘I don’t need a welcome mat’

By: - January 24, 2023 9:03 am

Diane Derzis, operator of the Bristol Women’s Clinic, addresses the media during an emotional news conference in Jackson, Mississippi on Friday, June 24, 2022, held in response to he U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. (Photo by Neirin Gray Desai | Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting).

A looming local ordinance banning abortion clinics, daily protestors and a lawsuit by her landlord do not faze Diane Derzis, owner of the newly established Bristol Women’s Health clinic located about a mile across the Tennessee border in Virginia.

Since it opened in July, Derzis’ abortion clinic has also drawn condemnation from the local Catholic Diocese and evangelical Christian groups — as well as handwringing from some in the area business community, concerned that the city, long-touted for its central location at the convergence of three state borders, will now be viewed as an abortion destination.

Derzis said none of that concerns her.

“I don’t need a welcome mat from anyone in this city. We pay taxes. They take them,” she said.

Derzis, 68, has spent a lifetime working to provide abortion access in clinics across the South, a vocation that took root when she was a 20-year-old married woman who sought out her own abortion. She currently owns three other abortion clinics in Columbus, Georgia, Las Cruces, New Mexico and Richmond, Virginia.

Until this summer, Derzis also owned an abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi — the last abortion clinic in a state that no longer has any left. Her fight to keep that clinic open landed in the Supreme Court last summer in a case – Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center — now memorialized as one that a majority of justices used as a vehicle to overturn nearly 50 years of abortion rights established by Roe v. Wade.

“I guess I must love the chaos,” Derzis said in an interview last week. “But this is nothing compared to what women have to go through to obtain this procedure.”

Derzis’ latest fight is defending a lawsuit brought by her Bristol, Va. landlords, who contend that they had no idea when they leased their building it would be used as an abortion clinic — a service they are “morally opposed” to, according to their lawsuit.

“It’s absurd. If that was a concern they should have done their due diligence,” said Derzis, noting the clinic had previously been located just a mile away on the Tennessee side of the border that splits the city of Bristol in two.

It is not the only bump along the way in the rollout of the new clinic, which relocated to its new Virginia location in late July in anticipation of Tennessee’s ban on abortions that came one month later.

Dr. Wesley Adams had operated the Bristol Regional Women’s Center in Bristol, Tenn. for decades — the only abortion provider serving a broad swath of Appalachian communities in northeast Tennessee and surrounding states. He scouted the building in Bristol, Virginia, picked up the phone and called Derzis.

“I met Wes 30 years ago, but we had not seen each other in many, many years,” she said.  She said she didn’t hesitate to partner with Adams on the new clinic.

“A marriage was made.” Derzis said. “Then they started in on Wes.”

Barry Staubus, the district attorney in Sullivan County — where Adams’ Tennessee clinic was located — has warned Tennessee doctors they could face prosecution if they participate in abortions performed out of state.

Adams, who could not be reached for comment for this story, sought legal advice but “nobody knew what was going to happen,” Derzis said.

Adams left the clinic in Derzis’ hands, but many of his former volunteers and staff now work at the new clinic, she said. The absence of Adams, a licensed obstetrician who performed abortions, is not just the loss of a business partner. It has added to Derzis’ ongoing challenge of recruiting and retaining physicians at the clinic.

With access to abortion limited or non-existent throughout the South, the clinic in its first six months has provided abortions to patients from Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee, she said.

“The amazing thing is how many of these women had no idea Roe was gone, or even that Roe ever existed,” Derzis said. “I’m 68. These kids are so privileged. I know it sounds absurdly unbelievable but these women had no idea before they needed an abortion what was happening.”

Her staff has also had to deal with protestors outside their work and other disruptions to day-to-day operations, she said.

“We had a UPS man who refused to deliver packages recently, and I hope he lost his job,” she said. “People need to think. If he’s a Seventh Day Adventist, could he refuse to deliver supplies to a hospital?”

Patients often have to make their way past protestors outside the building, some organized by The Family Foundation of Virginia, a conservative organization that helped draft a resolution barring future abortion clinics in Bristol and the surrounding county.

The resolution, which is expected to be considered at Bristol Virginia City Council meeting February, would keep the Bristol clinic from expanding or relocating, but Derzis dismissed its impact on her clinic.

“It’s a dog and pony show,” she said. “It’s also the best advertising we could get. And as a business owner, it makes us queen bee here — the only abortion provider in the area.”

This story was originally published by the Tennessee Lookout which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.