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Judge: Mississippi's sole abortion clinic can stay open for now

July 11, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • Anti-abortion advocates stand outside Mississippi's only abortion clinic last month.
Anti-abortion advocates stand outside Mississippi's only abortion… (Rogelio V. Solis / Associated…)

A federal judge on Wednesday left in place an injunction blocking a new law in Mississippi that could effectively shut down the state’s only abortion clinic, located in Jackson, Miss.

U.S. District Court Judge Daniel P. Jordan III extended the injunction but did not say how long it would remain in effect. The law, passed by the Republican-led legislature in April and made effective July 1, requires anyone performing an abortion to be a certified obstetrician/gynecologist with admitting privileges at a local hospital.

Doctors who perform abortions at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization are OB/GYNS, the clinic says, but they must travel from other states -- and don’t have local admitting privileges. The clinic has said the law would cause "irreparable harm" because local hospitals have not said when, or if, they would grant privileges.

Critics of the law say it's designed to make obtaining abortions difficult or impossible in Mississippi, in defiance of a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states cannot place undue burdens on a woman’s right to an abortion. The bill’s legislative sponsor, state Rep. Sam C. Mims, has denied that the law is an anti-abortion measure, saying it's designed to protect women’s health by ensuring continuous care.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who signed the bill into law, has said he hopes it makes the state "abortion free." He has called the law "the first step in a movement, I believe, to do what we campaigned on: To say that we’re going to try to end abortion in Mississippi.’’

The governor said when he signed the law: "If it closes that clinic, then so be it.’’

If the clinic is closed, Mississippi would be the only state without a functioning abortion clinic. The nearest clinics are at least 200 miles away in Alabama, Louisiana or Tennessee.

In court Wednesday, the judge warned lawyers: "This is a court of law, not a political debate.’’

Jordan, who granted the original injunction July 1, said he would review the Mississippi Department of Health’s new procedures outlining how the law would be implemented. 

If Jordan does not make the injunction permanent while the clinic challenges the law’s constitutionality in court, the state could begin a 60-to-90-day administrative process to close the clinic for noncompliance.

Mims, in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times, said he was not disappointed by the judge’s ruling. He said Jordan asked "some very pointed questions’’ and indicated he would rule again after he studies the state’s proposals for implementing the law.

"We very much look forward to the judge’s next ruling,’’ Mims said.

Mims stressed that the intent of the law remains the same. "It’s a healthcare issue,’’ he said.

The clinic’s owner, Diane Derzis, did not immediately respond to a request for comment left at the clinic office. She told CNN: "I’m jubilant. It means the constitutional rights of women to make their decision, for the time being, is in place.’’

Earlier this week, Derzis told reporters that Republican legislators were trying to outlaw abortion. "I love that it’s white old men making those statements,’’ she said of legislators. "This is not about safety. This is about politics, and politics do not need to be in our uterus.’’

The clinic performed about 3,000 abortions over the last 18 months, according to court papers.

Terri Herrin of the Pro Life America Network, who lobbied for the law and attended Wednesday’s court hearing, said hospitals should deny admitting privileges to the clinic’s doctors.

"There’s no vetting process for fly-by-night physicians who come in and perform abortions at this clinic,’’ Herring told The Associated Press.

In addition to the latest law, Mississippi requires a 24-hour waiting period and parental consent for minors seeking abortions. Twenty-six states require a waiting period, usually 24 hours, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that studies reproductive health. Twenty-two states require some form of parent consent for minors.

Twenty-one states require an abortion to be performed in a hospital after a specified point in pregnancy, according to the institute. Thirty-nine states require abortions to be performed by a licensed physician, and 20 require the involvement of a second physician after a specified point.

Mississippi, which had as many as 14 abortion providers in the 1980s, has the country’s highest teen pregnancy rates.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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