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Abortion Providers in Mississippi & Alabama Post-Roe Want Biden to Federally Codify Right to Choose

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Heeding outrage from reproductive rights activists, President Biden signed an executive order Friday to ensure access to abortion medication and emergency contraception in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. We speak to the heads of two major reproductive health centers in the Deep South about how they are providing patient care now that abortion is criminalized. Diane Derzis is CEO of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, which was at the center of the Supreme Court case that led to the overturning of Roe. The clinic closed soon after Roe was overturned last month, and plans to reopen in Las Cruces, New Mexico. We also speak to Robin Marty, operations director of the West Alabama Women’s Center, which just reopened on Monday to offer a selective range of sexual health services after discontinuing abortion services. “The only way to stop this is to absolutely pass federal law that protects a woman’s access to the most private decision in our lives,” says Derzis. “We are going to be a safe place that does not ask questions and simply sees people with bleeding issues and does what we are legally allowed to under the law,” says Marty.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we end today’s show with an update on abortion rights as President Biden considers declaring a public health emergency to expand abortion access after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Biden was asked about the issue Sunday.

REPORTER: One of the things they are asking for is a public health emergency. Is that something you’re considering? Or —

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: That’s something I’ve asked the folks to — the medical people in the administration to look at, whether that is — whether I have the authority to do that and what impact that would have.

AMY GOODMAN: Biden’s comments came on the same day as some 10,000 reproductive rights activists rallied in Washington to urge the administration and lawmakers to do more to protect abortion.

CHANTELLE PIPER: We’re demanding that the federal government do something to legalize abortion now, that waiting ’til November is not enough.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden signed an executive order Friday to ensure access to abortion medication, abortion pills, and emergency contraception and is urging Congress to pass legislation to codify abortion rights. On Monday, the Biden administration said that federal law preempts state abortion bans when emergency care is needed and that the government can penalize institutions or providers that fail to provide abortions as needed to treat medical emergencies.

The White House has defended Biden’s response to the Supreme Court ruling so far, but one of our next guests tweeted in response, quote, “I don’t know who needs to hear this but ’Here’s a free lawyer for after you are arrested,’ isn’t really the win for us it is being touted as….”

That was Robin Marty, operations director of the West Alabama Women’s Center, which used to provide abortion services before the ban and just reopened on Monday. She’s also author of The New Handbook for a Post-Roe America. She is in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

And joining us in Gulf Shores, Alabama, is Diane Derzis, the CEO and owner of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, which was at the center of the Supreme Court case that led to the overturning of Roe, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The clinic closed soon after Roe was overturned last month, and plans to reopen in Las Cruces, New Mexico, hours away.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Diane Derzis, let’s begin with you. You are the woman —

DIANE DERZIS: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: — in charge of the organization that’s the named Supreme Court case that overturned Roe. Your response right now both to the Supreme Court and if you think President Biden is doing enough?

DIANE DERZIS: Well, let me address President Biden. I think he is limited in his powers to do anything. I think he’s made it clear that unless we turn out for the vote in the next election, we are lost. In the meantime, we are having women flee these hostile states, and we’re still threatening doctors, even with what Biden did. We’re threatening doctors in neighboring states if they in fact give a pill that is taken out of that state and completed at home in a hostile state. So, this is far beyond anything that people are talking about at this point. It’s dreadful.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask: Why did the Jackson Women’s Health Organization close? I mean, it’s not only an abortion clinic; it provides all kinds of services. We saw the last day, the anti-abortion activists out there.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that decision.

DIANE DERZIS: The way that the clinic survived was by doing abortions, not by doing the family care and those other, unfortunately, services that we did. Most of those don’t pay the rent. And there are other agencies that do those. Our only choice was to go where we could make a difference, and the closest place that we found was Las Cruces. We’re still opening in Baltimore, in Virginia, Bristol, Virginia, and we still have clinics in Georgia, until we don’t. So, we do have other places, and we do have inroads into making referrals to women wherever they’re closer. And it may not be Las Cruces, but it will be a clinic that’s closer to them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your decision to pick New Mexico as the best place to operate, could you talk about why? And is there any way that Alabama law can reach out to the work you do there?

DIANE DERZIS: I don’t see that. It’s not a neighboring state. That only, unfortunately, affects the women that are in Alabama. But the reason we picked that was because it is, for the time being — and I say that, for the time being — a safe state. We’ve been welcomed by the governor. It helps when you have someone politically pro-choice who understands women’s needs, and women must have these services at any cost. So, that is the primary reason we chose New Mexico.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about the Native nations. There’s a Choctaw — the Choctaw in Mississippi. Would the Indian reservations have an ability to not follow state law as such?

DIANE DERZIS: That’s a good question and one that someone smarter than I would have to answer. We’ve often thought over the years that the Native Americans, that is their land, whether or not they want to involve themselves in this. It would certainly be wonderful if that were the case. But I think we’ve talked about it for years. I haven’t seen anything or anyone that’s ever gotten close to doing anything.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s really interesting, both Native American reservations and also federal enclaves — right? — federal land —


AMY GOODMAN: — in these states, like military bases or other federal land. Let’s put that question to Robin Marty, operations director of the West Alabama Women’s Center, which has just reopened, interestingly. Explain that decision, though the women’s health clinic will not be offering abortions, and then talk about this issue of federal enclaves.

ROBIN MARTY: Sure. Thank you so much for having me on, first of all.

In Alabama, we are a sole clinic. We do not have any other states that we have operations in. We are just specifically in Alabama. We’re a nonprofit health center. And so, in preparation for Roe being overturned, because we did know it was coming, we set aside a pool of money that we know will allow us to stay open for at least three months. And in those three months, we’re using that in order to build up all of our other programs, so family planning programs, HIV care, prenatal care, PrEP services — all sorts of different programs that we know are desperately necessary in Alabama because there’s no place that people can go to to have that.

With that pool of money, we are also making sure that we are around so that if a person tries to manage their own abortion, or if a person is having a miscarriage and is afraid to go into a hospital, they’re allowed to come and see us, and we can do basic diagnostics, ultrasounds, and help them understand whether they need more care or not, or if they do have a miscarriage and that needs to be managed. We believe that this is the most important thing that can happen in Alabama, because when you criminalize abortion, that means any person who can become pregnant and does have bleeding issues could be suspected of having tried to end their own pregnancy. The state keeps saying that they are not going to charge the person who tries to do their own abortion, but we do know that they will try to charge anyone around that person in order to try and basically make people too afraid to end their own pregnancies. So we are going to be a safe place that does not ask questions and simply sees people with bleeding issues and does what we are legally allowed to under the law. That’s why we’re staying open. And we are hoping that in the next three months we can raise enough money to keep ourselves open on these new projects.

As for all of the questions about federal land or native land, people need to remember that when it comes to Native lands, I mean, this entire country was Native land. This is land that was stolen from Native Americans, and it is not ours to try to come and say, “Hey, can we use this in order to circumvent the laws that we as white people have passed, righteously or not, in our own states?”

Also, when you look at military bases, federal lands, we already know that federally we have the Hyde Amendment, which forbids anyone from doing any sort of taxpayer funding for abortion. We also know that in states that have had their own state versions of Hyde Amendments or have used Hyde Amendments, they have used it to say that anything that is funded by a taxpayer, which would be federal land, counts as federal funding of abortion. So there’s simply not an option for us to use federal land, as far as I can tell, in order to set up abortion care centers in these really hostile states.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Robin Marty, even before the Roe ruling, talk about how it was already difficult to access abortion and reproductive healthcare in Alabama and the South, Gulf Coast.

ROBIN MARTY: Very much so. Even prior to the ruling itself, there were only a handful of clinics that are in the Gulf Coast area. There were three in Louisiana, there were three in Alabama, and there was one in Mississippi. That’s for the entirety of the region. And we saw exactly how limited that was once Texas banned almost all abortions back in September. And as time has passed, we have seen more and more patients coming from Texas, from Mississippi, from Louisiana over to our abortion clinic, because it was one of two abortion clinics in the area that was operating five days a week. It was impossible for people to get abortions, to even move across the state to get them, because of onerous laws. In Alabama, you had to wait 48 hours between your first in-person appointment and your second in-person appointment. And so, that was very difficult for many people who had multiple jobs, children at home.

It was already almost impossible to get an abortion, and now it will be virtually impossible. And that’s why we’re focusing on people that we know are not going to leave the state because it’s simply too hard. There is not enough money that you can give to some of the population in Alabama to allow them to go all the way to Illinois, to North Carolina in order to access care. We know that they are going to try to access it at home. And it is vitally important to make sure that if they do that, they are able to go somewhere safe where they do not have to worry about surveillance or somebody trying to put them in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to Diane Derzis and ask you about what’s happening in Mississippi, the poorest state in the United States, also has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy and infant maternal mortality. Talk about the effect this ruling is having on Mississippi. We already know that Black maternal mortality is several times what it is for white people who have children, the desperate situation there. And then I wanted to ask you about medication abortions, which is more than half the abortions in the United States, and all that is being done to set up vans along borders to get women these pills, even to perform abortions in the vans. That’s a lot there, Diane, but if you could take on that?

DIANE DERZIS: Yes. We’re actually seeing women travel from Mississippi to our clinic in Georgia right now and to Atlanta. You know, and I happen to disagree with Marty on that: Women will do whatever it takes to get an abortion, whether it be legal, safe or, as she points out, self-managed. And neither one of those are certainly not the best situation. But we are seeing women travel. There are tons of money that people are putting into the process of making sure women have access, for travel and for other reasons. I am not one that supports self-managed abortions. So, you know, it’s — are we going to have that? Absolutely. But the medication abortions certainly changed and put a different face on abortion. Again, it is not 100%, so you still have the problems that Robin was speaking of earlier.

The whole situation should never have happened. I think that it has to send the message that right now we are trying to plug the bleeding. And the only way to stop this is to absolutely pass federal law that protects a woman’s access to the most private decision of her life. And I think that’s what we’re going to need to do in the long run and to start working on right now, but in the meantime, we’re doing everything we can. And you have different ways of doing that, as has just been pointed out from both of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Robin Marty if you want to comment on that, and also this division that is growing in the Democratic Party between progressives and the Democratic establishment, yesterday the outgoing White House communications director Kate Bedingfield saying in a statement, “Joe Biden’s goal in responding to Dobbs is not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.” Your response?

ROBIN MARTY: So, first, to what Diane had said, I do believe that, obviously, abortion clinics need to exist, and there are always going to be people who need nonmedication abortion. There’s also always going to be people who need follow-up abortion care. Medication abortion, as Diane pointed out, is not 100% effective. It’s very safe if the pills are gotten from a place that we know is giving verified medication. It’s the same medication as in our clinic. But when you have a failed abortion, so one that the abortion did not work, or you have a situation where all of the products haven’t come out or bleeding, the reality is that we still need to have places where people can come to, because people are going to do medication abortion out of state, but they are going to come home to finish it. And so, once they are at home taking the second dose of their medication, they’re now in a place where there is no legal abortion clinic. People are going to need a place to go that will provide that care regardless of whether they do elective abortion at all.

As for the Biden administration’s lack of finesse on actually pulling together a coalition, we know that abortion is extraordinarily popular. We know especially now at the outpouring of the protests that have been happening in D.C., across the country. In Alabama, we have had multiple protests since this decision came down, which has only been a couple of weeks. People want everyone to be able to have access to their own bodily autonomy. That is a fundamental right, and it’s one —

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

ROBIN MARTY: — that the Biden administration has to address, because it belongs to everyone, and everyone supports it.

AMY GOODMAN: Robin Marty, we want to thank you for being with us, operations director of West Alabama Women’s Center, which has just reopened, and Diane Derzis, CEO and owner of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, was center of the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v. Wade. It has closed. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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What Is the Comstock Act? Texas Judge Cites 1873 Anti-Obscenity Law to Halt Approval of Abortion Pill

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