Judge saves Mississippi’s only abortion clinic ... for now

A federal judge allowed a new Mississippi law targeting the state’s only abortion clinic, but said the clinic can stay open so as not to cause ‘irreparable harm’ to women seeking the procedure.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Abortion opponents Ron Nederhoed and Ashley Sigrest argue with Jackson Women's Health Organization's administrator Shannon Brewer over the opponent's trespassing onto the property of Mississippi's only abortion clinic in Jackson, Miss.

A federal judge on Friday allowed Mississippi’s only remaining abortion clinic to stay open by giving it time to adjust to a new state law that beefs up professional requirements for the Jackson facility’s staff.

But so far, the clinic has had little luck in abiding by the law, which requires it to get “admission privileges” from local hospitals. One hospital recently told the clinic “not to bother.”

The ruling by Judge Dan Jordan on Friday was seen as a partial victory both for the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which provides the bulk of the state’s annual 2,000 abortion, as well as state anti-abortion activists and sympathizers, including Gov. Phil Bryant, who said he hoped the law would make the state “abortion-free.”

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While the 1972 Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal in the US, the situation in Mississippi is testing the limits of the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling, which said states can regulate abortion clinics as long as those laws don’t essentially harm women’s underlying right to choose an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy.

While anti-abortion activists have stated the law is intended to ensure better medical care for women, it’s also clear that it’s intended to make operating a clinic in Mississippi so difficult that it’s no longer worth it, thus abolishing abortion in the state while never expressly outlawing it. If lawmakers succeed in closing the clinic, women in the state would have to travel up to 200 miles to clinics in other states.

In his ruling, Judge Jordan said the clinic need not fear for criminal or civil penalties by continuing to operate as it works to adhere to the new law.

“Given the highly charged political context of this case and the ambiguity still present, the Court finds that there would be a chilling effect on the Plaintiffs’ willingness to continue operating the Clinic until they obtained necessary privileges,” he wrote. “Therefore, an irreparable injury currently exists.”

The battle over the Jackson clinic is tinged with religion, philosophy, legalities, and deeply personal feelings. The owner of the clinic, Diane Derzis, has embraced the nickname “abortion queen” after fighting for years to keep clinics open in the Bible Belt. It was one of her clinics in Alabama that was bombed by Eric Rudolph, the Olympic bomber, who escaped capture for five years before being captured in the early 2000s.

On the other side is an anti-abortion activist named Terri Herring, who has fought equally long to abolish abortion in the state by working to put legal restrictions, such as parental notification, on the practice. Those laws have helped curtail the total number of clinics in the state from 14 in the 1980s to the current one.

Conservative Mississippi, which has some of the lowest educational achievement and highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, has long been dismissed by some critics as a hopeless backwater whose misogynistic instincts have to be constantly tempered by federal judges.

Yet some observers say the “bottlenecking” strategy employed in Mississippi has emerged as perhaps the boldest test yet of the limits of Roe v. Wade. And activists in other conservative states are clearly watching closely, underscored by the passage of some 162 state laws attempting to restrict abortion last year alone.

Feelings about abortion in Mississippi are not far out of line with national averages, where 52 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances, such as rape.

At the same time, Mississippi’s strict views on reproductive rights are far from monolithic. Last year, a “personhood” referendum that would have extended constitutional rights to fetuses, thus turning at least some abortions into possible murder cases, was rejected by 55 percent of voters.

According to the state’s Health Department, the clinic will get about 10 months to follow the new mandates before losing its license. At that point, it can appeal to a state court for relief, potentially setting off another round of injunctions and constitutional clarifications.

So far, none of Mississippi’s abortion restrictions have been overturned by the courts, and the newest mandates mirror state clinic rules in many other states.

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