A federal Appeals Court has struck down a Mississippi law that would have shuttered the state’s only abortion clinic.
In a 2-1 decision Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled unconstitutional a 2012 law requiring physicians performing more than 10 abortions a year to be certified in obstetrics and gynecology and have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
The court is the same one that upheld a sweeping Texas law including the same provision, which has already closed more than a third of the abortion clinics in the state since it was passed last summer.
Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the sole clinic that offers legal abortions in Mississippi, has two providers, neither of whom has admitting privileges. The clinic was unable to obtain admitting privileges after the law was passed, but a federal judge put the requirement on hold while the court proceedings continued.
Tuesday’s ruling affirms the District Court’s injunction. If the law were ultimately upheld, the clinic would have been forced to close, leaving women in the state without a single abortion provider.
The Mississippi law is part of a wave of antiabortion regulations that have closed or threatened to close large numbers of clinics in several states. However, the impact in Mississippi would arguably be the most extreme, as the state has only one provider.
The Appeals Court judges cited this difference as reason for striking down the law, saying that forcing women to travel outside state lines to have an abortion constituted an undue burden on their constitutional right established in Roe v. Wade.
“Mississippi may not shift its obligation to respect the established constitutional rights of its citizens to another state,” said Judge E. Grady Jolly, writing for the majority. “Such a proposal would not only place an undue burden on the exercise of the constitutional right, but would also disregard a state’s obligation under the principle of federalism — applicable to all 50 states — to accept the burden of the non-delegable duty of protecting the established federal constitutional rights of its own citizens.”
Supporters of the law argue it is meant to protect women’s health, and that individuals seeking an abortion could travel to another state.
However, Gov. Phil Bryant has been more straightforward about his intention in signing the law, saying he wants to “make Mississippi abortion-free.”
States have the right to regulate abortions, to the extent that they do not create an “undue burden” for women seeking the procedure, but what constitutes a burden is a major point of contention.
A different three-judge panel on the same Appeals Court ruled that the Texas anti-abortion law was constitutional because there will still be some clinics providing abortions in the state, although women will have to travel far greater distances in some cases to access them.
The court views Tuesday’s opinion in Mississippi as consistent with the Texas ruling, given the different circumstances.
Advocates on both sides say a split in Appeals Court decisions — with two different federal courts disagreeing — would make it more likely that these kinds of abortion regulations make it to the Supreme Court as soon as next session.
Challenges to similar laws are still pending in Alabama and Wisconsin.
“It’s our view that these laws are unconstitutional in any state,” said Julie Rikelman, litigation director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the person who argued the case against the Mississippi law. “There’s no medical justification; states should not be able to restrict a constitutional right based on pretext.”