By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Attorneys for Mississippi’s only abortion clinic are again asking a federal judge to block a state law that threatens to eventually close the facility, though a closing is not expected any time soon.
In court papers filed Wednesday, attorneys say the Jackson Women’s Health Organization has been unable to obtain privileges for most of its physicians to admit patients to a local hospital, despite repeated attempts to get the access the past few months.
A state law that took effect in July requires admitting privileges. It also says anyone performing abortions must be a board-certified OB-GYN.
Supporters of the law say it’s designed protect patients’ safety. The clinic argues in court papers that the requirements are “arbitrary and medically unnecessary.”
“Anti-choice politicians were very clear that they had one in thing in mind when they passed this law: to shut down Mississippi’s only abortion clinic,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a news release Wednesday. “It isn’t a surprise to anyone that the physicians at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization haven’t been able to obtain admitting privileges at any local hospital.”
It was not immediately clear how soon the judge might consider the clinic’s latest request.
Republican Rep. Sam Mims of McComb, who sponsored the bill, said it had bipartisan support.
“The clinic has had ample time to become compliant with this new legislation,” Mims said Wednesday. “We believe the law should be enforced.”
The state health officer, Dr. Mary Currier, filed a sworn statement in federal court July 12, showing the clinic would get about 10 months, from then, to try to follow the mandates and to exhaust its administrative appeals with the Health Department. That time runs out next spring. If the clinic loses its state license, it would then get more time to appeal that loss to a state court.
Admitting privileges can be difficult to obtain. Some hospitals won’t issue them to out-of-state physicians, while hospitals that are affiliated with religious groups might not want to associate with anyone who does elective abortions.
One of the clinic’s four physicians has admitting privileges, but the clinic says he does little work at the clinic and he had the privileges before the new law took effect. The other three don’t have privileges.
In court papers filed in August, the clinic’s attorneys argued that the admitting privileges requirement “effectively gives local hospitals veto power” over the clinic’s ability to keep its license and stay in business. The clinic wrote that Crossgates River Oaks Hospital in Brandon and Woman’s Hospital in Flowood denied the privileges for two clinic physicians. Both hospitals are owned by Health Management Associates, based in Florida.
According to court papers, both hospitals wrote in their denials: “The nature of your proposed medical practice is inconsistent with this Hospital’s policies and practices as concerns abortion and, in particular, elective abortions; … (and) The nature of your proposed medical practice would lead to both an internal and external disruption of the Hospital’s function and business within this community.”
The clinic’s out-of-state physicians are OB-GYNs, although the clinic says other types of physicians, such as general practitioners, could have the skills to perform abortions.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said when he signed the bill in April that he wants Mississippi to be “abortion-free.” Clinic owner Diane Derzis said Bryant’s statement, plus similar comments by Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, show elected officials in Mississippi were trying to eliminate access to a constitutionally protected medical procedure.
The clinic filed suit in June seeking to block the law, which was to take effect July 1. After briefly putting the law on hold, U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III allowed it to take effect in mid-July to see if the clinic could meet its requirements. Jordan also blocked any civil or criminal penalties against the clinic and its employees while the clinic tries to comply with the law.
The clinic has said its physicians do almost all of the roughly 2,000 abortions that are performed in Mississippi each year. If Mississippi physicians perform 10 or fewer abortions a month, or 100 or fewer a year, they can avoid having their offices regulated as abortion facilities.
If the clinic in Jackson closes, the closest places for women to seek elective abortions are in Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama — at least 175 miles from Jackson.
“Mississippi women have the same constitutional rights as any other women in the United States — they deserve far better than to be forced to travel hundreds of miles to another state to get a safe, legal medical procedure,” Northup said.
Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which is in the city’s Fondren neighborhood, about 2 miles north of the state Capitol building, can perform abortions up to 16 weeks’ gestation; a full-term pregnancy lasts 40 weeks.
The clinic argued in court papers in August: “In the unlikely event that a patient experienced a serious complication that required hospitalization while at the Clinic, the Clinic would transfer her by ambulance to the nearest hospital.”
The closest hospital is the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which has said it does not grant admitting privileges to out-of-state physicians.
The clinic said its customary practice for a facility that accepts a patient in an emergency situation to remain in contact with the physician who decided to transfer the patient, regardless of whether that physician has admitting privileges at the hospital.
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