Appeals court ruling saves Mississippi's last remaining abortion clinic
Keep Abortion Legal by American Life League [Flickr Creative Commons]

By Emily Le Coz

JACKSON Miss. (Reuters) - A Mississippi law that would shut down the state's only abortion clinic, forcing women to go outside the state for the procedure, is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

Upholding a lower court's preliminary injunction against the law, a three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision that the law would place an undue burden on a woman's right to seek an abortion.

The law, passed in 2012, required doctors at the state's sole abortion clinic to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, a standard the clinic could not meet.

Backers of the law argued that it would not stop women from seeking an abortion in a neighboring state, but the judges ruled that Mississippi couldn't rely on other states to uphold its constitutional duties.

“Mississippi may not shift its obligation to respect the established constitutional rights of its citizens to another state,” the judges wrote.

The ruling is narrow. If another abortion clinic opened in Mississippi, it would have to attempt to comply with the state law, legal experts said.

Mississippi is among several states to have passed laws mandating that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

Such measures are in place in Kansas, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Texas, whose law was upheld in March by a panel from the same appeals court that issued Tuesday's ruling.

Similar laws have been blocked and are pending the outcome of court challenges in Alabama and Wisconsin, while the governors of Louisiana and Oklahoma have signed laws of their own set to take effect later this year.

Abortion rights campaigners say the laws impose arbitrary and medically unnecessary requirements targeting providers of the procedure.

Anti-abortion advocates have countered that they are intended to protect women's health, though some, including Mississippi Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, have also said they would likely shutter clinics.

The owner of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which as the state's sole abortion provider since 2002 serves roughly 2,000 women annually, hailed the ruling as a victory, if a provisional one.

“There will be more hoops to jump through,” said clinic owner Diane Derzis. “Right now, we’re just thankful we’re still open."

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said in a statement that he was disappointed with the ruling and would seek to have the case heard by the full 5th Circuit.

(Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky, Eric Walsh and Andrew Hay)

[Image via American Life League, Creative Commons-licensed]