Mississippi’s latest attempt to close its sole abortion clinic has been challenged as unconstitutional in an 11th hour legal challenge filed in a federal court on Wednesday.
The challenge, by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), argues that the state law will threaten the health of women in Mississippi and deprive them of their constitutionally protected right to decide when and whether to have children.
The law, which was passed in April and is due to come into effect on Sunday, requires doctors who perform the procedure to have admitting privileges at a local hospital in addition to being certified obstetricians and gynecologists.
This would impose “medically unjustified requirements” on physicians, with the sole and unconstitutional purpose of causing fewer abortions, the CRR argues.
Anti-abortion lawmakers have been vocal about their hope that the new law will end abortions in the state.
Physicians at the state’s only clinic, Jackson Woman’s Health Organization, who are struggling to obtain the necessary privileges, said the new measures are nothing to do with medicine.
Dr Willie Parker, one of the clinic’s three physicans, said: “This is not really about safety, it is about politics and the life of a woman is too important to play politics.”
Parker, who flies in from Washington every month to work at the clinic, said that closing the facility could endanger women’s lives. “Women who decide to have an abortion often have limited means, and they come from all parts of the state. Those women will have no option. In a medical emergency they will be hard pressed.
“It becomes dangerous. When women don’t have access to abortion care the reality is it creates desperate circumstances. They may try to accomplish their goal in ways that aren’t safe.”
Representatives of the clinic said its three doctors, who all live outside Mississippi, are already certified obstetricians and gynecologists. There is also a local doctor affiliated with the clinic who has admitting privileges, who is available in the rare case of any emergency. Parker said there has been no need for hospital admission in the past decade at the clinic.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, less than 0.3% of abortion patients in the US experience a complication that requires hospitalization.
The state’s normal rulemaking process would have delayed enforcement of the law until mid-August. However, last week, after what CRR described as “extraordinary political pressure” by the measure’s sponsor, the clinic was informed by the department of health that it had reversed its decision to follow that process. Contrary to earlier assurances, according to the CRR, it also refused to issue a renewal license while the lawmaking process was ongoing.
Inspectors from the Mississippi department of health, the state’s licensing agency for abortion clinics, are due to check on the clinics compliance with the new law on Monday.
The lawsuit, brought by CRR representing Parker and Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, seeks a temporary restraining order, which would allow the clinic to operate as normal, as well as a hearing in the case. The matter is now before US district judge Daniel Jordan.
Nancy Northup, president and chief executive at CRR, said: “For years, we have been beating back Mississippi’s underhanded tactics to close the only abortion clinic in the state. Mississippi lawmakers’ hostility to women and their reproductive rights does not give them license to violate their constitutional rights.”
She said closure of the clinic would force Mississippi women who were already facing difficult circumstances to travel hundreds of miles to neighbouring states.
“That is simply not an option for many poor and working-class women, and will certainly lead some to consider unsafe and illegal alternatives that pose grave risks to their health, lives, and reproductive future.”
The state’s sole abortion provider since 2002
The law, known as HB1390, is the latest in a number of recent measures across the country intent at limiting abortion.
Mississippi, one of the poorest states in America, already has some of the country’s strictest abortion laws and one of the lowest abortion rates. It also has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the US – more than 60% above the national average.
The state has already played host to some of the country’s fiercely fought battles over women’s reproductive rights, when last year its residents voted on a constitutional “personhood” amendment. The amendment would have defined a person at the moment when an egg is fertilised but was defeated.
State representative Sam Mims, sponsor of HB1390, sent a letter to the DOH on June 20, two days before the health department reversed its decision to delay enforcement, asking it to deny the clinic a grace period. He said he does not “want to give the facility 10 extra days to perform abortions”.
Mims has previously said that the goal of the legislation was to “cause fewer abortions in Mississippi”.
Michelle Movahed, staff attorney at the CRR, said: “There is absolutely no reason, other than a politically motivated one, for the health department to make this unprecedented 11th-hour decision to force the clinic to meet a requirement that is impossible to satisfy.”
The Jackson clinic is already subject to some of the “most onerous and burdensome restrictions for a reproductive health clinic in the country”, said Movahed.
“And time and time again, the clinic has remained steadfastly committed to the health and safety of women in Mississippi and has continued to find ways to keep its doors open.”
During a speech in May to the local Republican party group, representitive Bubba Carpenter acknowledged that women could return to what he described as “coat hanger” abortions.
“We have literally stopped abortion in the state of Mississippi,” said Carpenter. “The other side [is] like: ‘Well, the poor pitiful women that can’t afford to go out of state are just going to start doing them at home with a coat hanger.’ That’s what we’ve heard over and over and over. But hey, you have to have moral values.”
The Jackson clinic has been operating for 17 years and has been the state’s sole abortion provider since 2002. About 2,000 women received abortions at the clinic between 2010 and 2011. It also offers state-mandated counselling services for clients, some of whom decide to continue with their pregnancies.
The next nearest clinics for Mississippi residents are approximately three hours away, with most neighbouring states requiring a mandatory waiting period and some, such as Louisiana, requiring two trips. Alabama and Arkansas have a 24-hour waiting period, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
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