Abortion will still be legal in Mississippi next month. It’s just that women who live there probably won’t be able to get one.
Beginning July 1, all abortion-clinic physicians must have admitting privileges at a local hospital under a law passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by Republican Governor Phil Bryant in April. At the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state’s sole remaining clinic providing elective abortions, none of the three physicians who perform the procedure has been granted those privileges.
Mississippi may become the first U.S. state without a dedicated abortion clinic if the Jackson facility fails to come into compliance. That would mark the most visible victory for the anti-abortion movement, which has fought to abolish the procedure in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing a woman’s right to have one.
“Roe v. Wade said that women have a right to an abortion in the sense that a state can’t deny or criminalize it, but there was no guarantee of access,” said Wendy Parmet, associate dean at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. “States can’t create legal barriers or penalties, but they can make it practically really, really difficult.”
Betty Thompson, a spokeswoman for the clinic in the state capital, said the doctors have applied to seven area hospitals for admitting privileges. All three are already board certified in obstetrics and gynecology, as the new law also requires, she said.
“We are crossing every T and dotting every I to make sure we have every opportunity to receive admitting privileges,” she said. “We are certainly qualified.”
The state Health Department will meet July 11 to approve regulations to enforce the law, said Liz Sharlot, a department spokeswoman.
“Once the regulations are approved, we hold the facilities accountable for getting into compliance,” she said.
Christen Johnson, a 20-year-old waitress impregnated by her now-ex-boyfriend, may be one of the last women to get an abortion at the Jackson clinic. She had her first appointment there this week to receive state-mandated counseling and plans to undergo an abortion this month. State law requires that 24 hours pass between the two appointments.
“I want to be like my parents, I want to be married to the guy, I want to be in love and I want to have both parents here for the child,” said Johnson.
Her job provides barely enough money to afford a car and couldn’t support a child, she said.
“Opting out and waiting till I am ready would be the better decision,” she said. “If the clinic was closed, my whole life would be ruined.”
The law holds abortion providers to a higher standard and protects the rights of unborn children, said Terri Herring, national director of the Mississippi-based Pro Life America Network.
“If Mississippi closes the last abortion clinic, we will be leading the way,” said Herring, who lobbied for the law.
Mississippi once had as many as 14 abortion clinics. Before entering the Jackson facility, patients must leave backpacks outside, pass through a metal detector and be buzzed in by an attendant. It first opened in 1996, said Thompson.
Voters in the state last year rejected a constitutional amendment that could have banned the procedure even in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment. The so-called “personhood” measure stated that life begins at conception.
According to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which compiles reproductive-health data, more than 90 percent of Mississippi women live outside of Hinds County, where the Jackson clinic is located. Most residents already obtain abortions outside the state: in 2007, 63 percent did.
Of the 2,297 abortions performed in the state in 2010, the majority went to women who were nonwhite, unmarried, had a high-school degree or less and already had children, according to Health Department statistics. Most patients at the Jackson clinic, which provided 2,378 abortions in the year ending June 30, 2011, cite their lack of financial and personal stability as reasons for seeking the service, Thompson said.
None of the 120 hospitals in Mississippi is licensed as an abortion facility -- meaning they provide fewer than 10 abortions per month or 100 per year, if at all, said Sharlot. Nationally, abortion clinics provide 70 percent of abortions, and hospitals perform 4 percent, according to Guttmacher.
Neither the University of Mississippi Medical Center, St. Dominic Hospital nor Mississippi Baptist Health Systems, three of the hospitals to which the Jackson clinic has applied for admitting privileges, perform elective abortions. The first two didn’t comment on the application status.
Robby Channell, a spokesman for Baptist Health Systems, said one of the clinic’s doctors submitted an incomplete application and that the hospital is waiting for more information. The other four didn’t return requests for comment.
Michelle Movahed, a staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York, said Mississippi’s new law is among similar measures states have passed that are designed to force clinics to shut without explicitly calling for them to close. The center is providing legal counsel to the Jackson clinic.
Most supporters of those laws say they protect women from unregulated and unsafe procedures, said Elizabeth Nash, states issues manager at Guttmacher. Mississippi officials have been more direct about the real goal, she said.
“The Legislature took steps to end abortion in Mississippi by requiring doctors performing abortion to have admitting privileges at a local hospital,” Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves says on his website recapping accomplishments from the legislative session that ended last month. “This measure not only protects the health of the mother but should close the only abortion clinic in Mississippi.”
Mississippi is one of five states with one abortion clinic targeted by anti-abortion activists, including Operation Save America, a Dallas-based group that has protested in front of the Jackson clinic, according to a posting on its website.
Protesters picket almost every day. This week, Doug Hiser, a 54-year-old retired engineer from the Jackson area, stood outside in 90-plus-degree heat trying to talk to people heading inside. Ironically, he said, were the clinic to close, it may hurt the local anti-abortion movement more than it does the abortion rate.
“It’ll almost squash the pro-life movement, because we don’t have a place to focus,” said Hiser. “It actually prevents us from being able to do counseling.”