Mississippi could soon become the first state in the nation without a single abortion provider.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit is set to hear oral arguments next week regarding a 2012 law that would force the only remaining clinic in the state to close immediately.
The legislation is part of a recent wave of antiabortion regulations that have shuttered large numbers of providers in several states. However, the situation in Mississippi is arguably the most extreme, as the state has only one facility offering legal abortions.
The Mississippi law would require all physicians in health centers that perform more than 10 abortions a year to be certified in obstetrics and gynecology and have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
The law was passed in April 2012 but is not currently being implemented while a challenge continues in the courts. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in 2013, saying the law was likely unconstitutional because it would close the lone remaining clinic. The state appealed the decision, sending the case to the 5th Circuit.
Jackson Women's Health Organization, the one clinic that offers legal abortions in the state, has two providers, neither of which has admitting privileges. Clinic owner Diane Derzis said the facility sees 2,200 women for abortions each year.
The clinic tried to obtain admitting privileges for the doctors after the law was passed, but no hospital would accept them, according to Derzis. "We applied to every hospital—eight to 10 of them," she said. "The Catholic hospital turned us down immediately. The rest took a while, but turned us down without looking at the physicians. They put in writing that they were unable to handle the public press from this; they were upfront about it. It's clear the politics prevailed with this whole thing."
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has been straightforward with his intention in signing the law, saying he wants to "make Mississippi abortion-free." Other supporters of the law argue that the regulations are meant to protect women's health, but opponents say the law works against women's safety, and they point to Bryant's statement as evidence the motivation is political and ideological.
Mississippi had the highest teen birth rate in the nation in 2010 and the second highest in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state saw 50.2 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19, five-tenths of a point behind Arkansas.
Advocates remain uncertain how the 5th Circuit will rule. The court is the same one that upheld the Texas law that is set to close all but six abortion clinics in the state by September, and defended the decision by saying that driving longer distances for the services did not qualify as an "undue burden" for women seeking abortion services.
It's possible, though, that the judges would be more hesitant in Mississippi, since JWHO is the last provider. If the clinic were to close, women would need to travel to surrounding states like Louisiana or Alabama, both of which are also debating laws that would limit abortion clinics.
Derzis said she intends to "fight to the end" if the 5th Circuit gives her an unfavorable ruling, and would immediately appeal the decision. But without the ability to provide abortions, the clinic would be in trouble because the other services it offers—birth control, pregnancy tests, and more—are not enough financially to keep the clinic open.
The court will consider the state's appeal Monday, and a decision could come within a few weeks or months. If the judges uphold the lower court's decision, the law will continue to be put on hold while the case moves forward; if they strike it down, the law will go into effect immediately.
In the meantime, patients are preparing for the worst. "An administrator called to tell me 45 patients showed up [at the clinic] for abortions today," Derzis said. "They're not willing to take the risk that they may not be able to be seen next week."
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This article appears in the April 25, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.