By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS and LAURA TILLMAN, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's abortion laws, already among the strictest in the nation, are poised to become even tighter after a push by social conservatives to shut down the state's only clinic providing the procedure.
Women's legal options could soon be restricted to finding a doctor willing to terminate a pregnancy or seeking an abortion out of state, which would prove difficult for people with little money.
A bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and awaiting the signature of GOP Gov. Phil Bryant requires anyone performing abortions in a clinic to be a certified OB-GYN with admitting privileges at a local hospital. Those privileges aren't easy for doctors to get, either because they live out of state or because some religious-affiliated hospitals might be unwilling to associate themselves with people who perform elective abortions.
Bryant says he'll sign the law in the next few days. It would take effect July 1.
"We want Mississippi to be abortion-free," the first-term governor proclaimed earlier this year.
Abortion-rights advocates say politicians are simply inviting an expensive court fight — one the clinic's owner has vowed to start if the facility can't meet the requirements. The advocates say the state is enacting a law that could be found unconstitutional under the framework of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established a nationwide right to abortion.
Those pushing the law defend its constitutionality and say admitting privileges are vital so doctors can continue to treat patients if complications arise from an abortion. Diane Derzis, who runs the Jackson Women's Health Organization, disputes that such privileges are needed. She says her clinic already has an agreement that allows patients with complications to be transferred immediately to a local hospital.
The admitting privileges provision could shutter the clinic by depriving it of the doctors it needs to operate. Only one of the three OB-GYNs who work at the clinic has been granted them. Derzis said the clinic will do everything it can to comply with the new law.
"And if we can't comply, we're going to sue," Derzis told The Associated Press.
Mississippi already requires a 24-hour waiting period for an abortion and parental or judicial consent for any minor seeking the procedure. It's also among the few states where only a single clinic operates. North Dakota and South Dakota each have one clinic.
The Mississippi clinic, surrounded by an iron fence woven with heavy black tarp, is in the trendy Jackson neighborhood of Fondren, a few miles north of the state Capitol. It's the site of frequent protests, including this week when abortion opponents patrolled a sidewalk lined with posters of bloody fetuses. One sang hymns and another screamed at cars driving away from the clinic.
A 27-year-old woman who went to the clinic for an abortion, said protesters persuaded her to keep her first baby when she was 16. But after she dropped out of school and had two more children, she decided she couldn't manage a fourth.
"It's a lot tougher when you start out young," said Jessica, who asked not to be identified by last name because of concerns about the social stigma of abortion in this conservative state. "When I quit school, I thought money coming in at that time was more important than the money I'd be getting later if I stayed in school."
If Mississippi's only abortion clinic closes, women could travel to surrounding states to terminate pregnancies. The closest clinics to Jackson are in Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans, both some 150 miles away. There are also clinics in Memphis, Tenn., and Mobile, Ala., which are close to Mississippi borders. Democratic Sen. David Jordan of Greenwood, who opposed the bill, warned that some women, particularly the poor, could seek dangerous illegal abortions if they can't afford a trip out of state.
Proponents dismiss the idea that the law will get shot down as unconstitutional. They say similar laws or regulations in other states, including those enacted by the South Carolina health department, have been challenged and upheld.