Mississippi Could Soon Shut Down Its Only Abortion Clinic

An Appeals Court will consider a state law Monday that would close the state’s last remaining clinic.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: People hold up signs during a women's pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill, July 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. The rally was hosted by Planned Parenthood Federation of America to urge Congress against passing any legislation to limit access to safe and legal abortion. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sophie Novack
April 24, 2014, 3:20 p.m.

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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