Mississippi’s Last Abortion Clinic Is Fighting To Stay Open

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Mississippi could become the first state in the country without a single abortion clinic, depending on the outcome of a current legal challenge that’s in the hands of a conservative federal appeals court.

The Jackson Women’s Health Organization clinic, which has been operating for nearly two decades, has been struggling to remain open for the past several years. It’s not easy to provide abortion care in Mississippi. Back in 1981, the state had 14 different facilities that offered abortions — but that number has dwindled to just one, thanks to increasingly harsh restrictions on the procedure.

But abortion opponents aren’t satisfied. They want to close the last clinic, too. In 2012, Republican lawmakers in the state enacted a burdensome new state law that requires abortion doctors to obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals. The only two doctors who provide abortion care in Mississippi fly in from out of state to serve their patients, and they haven’t been able to get hospitals to agree to those partnerships, so the future of their work is in jeopardy.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has been fighting to block the admitting privileges law, and a federal judge sided with the group last April. That’s allowed the clinic to remain operating so far. But now, lawyers are back in court, arguing their case in front of a panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. If they lose, the restrictive state law will be allowed to immediately take effect.

“The devastating impact of this unconstitutional law couldn’t be clearer,” Julie Rikelman, the litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights and the attorney who will argue on behalf of the clinic on Monday, said in a statement. “If it is allowed to take effect, Mississippi will become the first state since Roe v. Wade without a single clinic offering safe, legal abortion care. Women across the state will be plunged back into the dark days of back-alley procedures that Roe was supposed to end.”

The Fifth Circuit isn’t typically sympathetic to reproductive rights. It’s the same court that recently upheld a package of restrictive abortion restrictions in Texas — including a similar admitting privileges requirement — that’s forced dozens of clinics to close over the past several months.

Requiring doctors to get admitting privileges is typically couched in terms of women’s safety. But in reality, it’s a medically unnecessary policy that doesn’t have any relationship to whether an abortion provider is prepared to serve his or her patients, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes this type of arbitrary state law. Nonetheless, it’s become a successful anti-choice strategy. Known as the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP, these laws allow states to indirectly limit women’s access to legal abortion. TRAP laws have advanced in states across the country, and more than 50 abortion clinics have been forced to close over the past several years.

Admitting privilege requirements typically leave abortion care up to the whim of hospital administrators, many of whom are wary to enter into a politicized fight. Dr. Willie Parker, a plaintiff in the Center for Reproductive Right’s current lawsuit and one of the doctors who travels from out of state to perform abortions in Mississippi, has been denied by 13 different hospitals for this reason.

“Some we received no response from, but the ones that we did, they made reference to the fact that because the care we provide is related to abortion they felt it might disruptive to the internal politics, as well as the external politics, for the hospital,” Parker, who is a board-certified OB-GYN, told NPR.

The Jackson Women’s Health Organization isn’t going down without a fight. Last year, the clinic staff painted the building bright pink, and explained that they want to send lawmakers a message. “It says, ‘We’re right here, and we’re not going anywhere,'” the clinic’s owner, Diane Derzis, said at the time.