Mississippi’s only remaining abortion clinic, which won an eleventh-hour temporary reprieve from closure last summer, has been told it could be shut down in six weeks after it was found to be in violation of a restrictive new state law this month.
Time is now running out for the clinic, which is in the middle of a legal battle to prove the new law is unconstitutional.
The Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, which has become a focus of the bitter fight for abortion rights across the nation, successfully won an injunction in July which allowed its medical staff time to try to comply with the law. But the injunction has run out, and, earlier this month, the facility’s owners were told by officials from the Department of Health they were not in compliance with House Bill 1390, passed and signed by Republican legislators in April.
Mississippi lawmakers have openly stated that the legislation, which requires the clinic’s doctors to gain admitting privileges at local hospitals, is aimed at closing JWHO and thus ending abortion in the state.
This week, as reproductive rights, pro-choice activists and citizens celebrated the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade – the US supreme court decision that gave women the constitutional right to abortion – the clinic’s owners have once more turned to the courts in an attempt to keep it open.
Diane Derzis, the owner of the JWHO, said state inspectors had told them this month it was not in compliance with the new law.
Derzis said: “Time has run out. It is now in the hands of the courts. I can only hope that the judge sees what has happened here and rules in our favour. I’m envisioning a long court battle.”
The clinic now seeks a second temporary injunction from the court, which would grant it an exception from the requirement for admitting privileges.
Michelle Mohaved, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is bringing the case on behalf of the clinic, said: “We’ve asked for relief before March 4, which we understand from the Department of Health is the soonest possible date by which they would revoke the clinic’s licence.”
Since July, the JWHO has tried in vain to comply with the new legislation. Only seven local hospitals are potential sources of privileges, and only five of them allowed the two doctors to apply to them. Each of the five hospitals denied the doctors privileges without reaching the merits of the doctors’ qualifications.
The clinic has also advertised on its website for a doctor with admitting privileges, also without success. They were refused permission to advertise with the Mississippi State Medical Association.
Derzis said that, despite the threat of imminent closure which will leave 2,000 women a year with nowhere else to go, her staff are hopeful the courts will intervene.
“Everyone is hopeful,” she said. “No-one can envision a state that is able to stop abortion.”
“We all rely too heavily on the court system, but at this stage of the game it’s our only hope. Until we knock out these far rightwing politicians and remove them from office this is the kind of legislation that will be seen in every state.”
Mississippi is one of four states with just one abortion clinic, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The others are South Dakota, North Dakota and Arkansas.
HB 1390 would require anyone performing abortions to be an registered obstetrician-gynecologist with privileges to admit patients to a local hospital. Doctors at the clinic in Jackson, who are from outside the state, do not have those privileges, and the clinic says the privileges are not medically necessary. Such privileges are also difficult to obtain for abortion doctors in a state where many hospitals are affiliated with churches.
Movahed said that the legal action to challenge the constitutionality of the law was continuing. She said that the JWHO have shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of the case, namely that an admitting privilege requirement is a de facto ban on abortion, which violates the constitution.
“It is quite clear that the situation in Mississippi is a perfect example of what anti-choice politicians are doing across the country by making it impossible for women to obtain abortions to which they are constitutionally entitled.” said Movahed.
The governor, Phil Bryant, and other Mississippi lawmakers have said that such privileges are necessary for the safety of patients. They have also openly stated that their purpose is to eliminate abortion in the state, a point made by the judge in his initial ruling on the case.
In its application for a second injunction before the judge, the CRR and JWHO said that less than 1% of women seeking abortion experience complications and the risk of post-abortion complication requiring hospital admission is very low – at 0.3%.