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Mississippi’s Last Abortion Clinic Sues to Block Shutdown

Mississippi’s sole remaining abortion clinic sued state officials over regulations it claims will force it to shut down and “effectively ban abortion” in the state.

The Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state’s only clinic providing elective abortions, filed a lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Mississippi, seeking to block the state health department from enforcing requirements set to take effect July 1. The clinic said in its complaint that the regulations violate women’s constitutional right to an abortion.

“The department’s actions jeopardize patient health, because they will effectively ban abortion in the state of Mississippi, leaving women with nowhere to turn in Mississippi,” the clinic said.

Mississippi would become the first U.S. state without a dedicated abortion clinic if the Jackson facility closes its doors. 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.

Hospital Privileges

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. The three physicians who perform the procedure at the Jackson clinic are still pursuing those privileges.

The clinic is seeking a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction from U.S. District Judge Daniel Jordan III, an appointee of President George W. Bush, arguing that enforcement of the requirements will cause irreparable harm.

Liz Sharlot, a Mississippi Health Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the lawsuit. She said the department plans to survey the clinic on July 2, the first business day after the law takes effect.

If it’s found to be out of compliance, the clinic will have 10 days to notify the department of how it plans to remedy the situation. The clinic may also appeal for an administrative hearing within 30 days.

“We will certainly ensure that the law is enforced in the same manner as we enforce all state and federal statutes and regulations for all health-care facilities in the state,” Sharlot said in a telephone interview. “What that means is this facility will get due process.”

Diane Derzis, owner of the Jackson clinic, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment on the lawsuit.

Activists’ Target

Mississippi is among five states, each with a single abortion clinic, that have been 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.

The clinic claims the law imposes “medically unjustified requirements” to achieve a policy goal.

“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.”

When Bryant anounced he would sign the legislation, he said he would “continue to work to make Mississippi abortion-free,” according the complaint.

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.

Suit’s Defendants

The lawsuit names Mary Currier, Mississippi Department of Health’s state health officer, and Robert Shuler Smith, district attorney for Hinds County, Mississippi, as defendants.

Smith didn’t immediately return a telephone message seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The clinic performed about 2,000 abortions in 2011 and about 1,100 this year, according to a declaration by Shannon Brewer-Anderson, the clinic’s director, submitted to the court. The department in a June 18 inspection, found the clinic to be in compliance with all state regulations.

“Since the most recent owner took over in 2010, the clinic has had no major incidents, nor has a single patient required admittance to the emergency room after receiving an abortion procedure at the clinic,” she said in the declaration.

Of the 2,297 abortions performed in the state in 2010, the majority were given to women who were nonwhite, unmarried, had a high-school diploma or less and already had children, according to health department statistics. Most of those were performed at the Jackson clinic.

Abortion Facility

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, according to Sharlot.

Nationally, abortion clinics provide 70 percent of abortions, and hospitals perform 4 percent, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which compiles reproductive-health data.

It’s difficult for abortion doctors to obtain privileges at local hospitals, Stanley Henshaw, a medical consultant and abortion researcher, said by e-mail.

To grant privileges, many hospitals require physicians to live within a short distance of the hospital and to admit a minimum number of patients a year, often 10 or more, he said. A typical abortion provider would rarely admit more than one patient a year for abortion complications and in many years would have no complications requiring hospitalization, he said.

The case is Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Currier, 12-00436, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Mississippi (Jackson).

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