By JEFF AMY, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Health officials have inspected Mississippi's lone abortion clinic, the first step in a process that could lead to its closure if a new state law survives a legal challenge.
Following Monday's inspection, the Mississippi Department of Health has 10 working days to issue findings. The Jackson Women's Health Organization continues to perform abortions in the meantime.
Clinic owner Diane Derzis said she expected to be cited for not complying with the law's requirement that physicians have privileges to admit patients to an area hospital.
"You know that I'm not in compliance," Derzis told The Associated Press Tuesday in a phone interview. "Certainly this is not a secret."
Derzis said she had expected the inspection to occur Monday.
"They will write us up for that and we will respond," she said. "The dance will continue."
Health department spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said the agency will send its findings to Derzis and called the examination a "standard inspection" of the type the department would conduct any time a new law was enacted, carried out by one or two employees.
The law also requires anyone who performs abortions to be an OB-GYN. The clinic said its physicians meet that requirement. The obstacle is that the two out-of-state OB-GYNS don't have admitting privileges and are having trouble getting them from reluctant local hospitals.
The clinic sued to stop the law from taking effect. On July 13, U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III ruled that the state was allowed to enforce the law while physicians continued to seek needed hospital admitting privileges. Jordan, though, said the state couldn't issue any criminal or civil penalties while the clinic tried to comply.
Admitting privileges can be difficult to obtain, either because doctors live out of state or because religious-affiliated hospitals don't grant them to doctors who do abortions. For example, Derzis has said that Jackson's St. Dominic Hospital, a Catholic facility, told physicians not to bother to apply. The clinic has said it could be forced out of business with the admitting privileges requirement, making it nearly impossible to get an abortion in Mississippi.
The clinic argues that the law will effectively ban abortion in the state and endanger women's health by limiting access to the procedure. It argued that the law is unconstitutional and would close the clinic "by imposing medically unjustified requirements on physicians who perform abortions." Lawyers also cite statements from Mississippi officials who said the law was intended to close the clinic.
A denial of admitting privileges could bolster the clinic's arguments that the law is unconstitutional, a lawyer for the state has suggested. But a final ruling could come only after a trial, and the loser could appeal.
The state argues that the law is intended to enhance the safety of patients. The state's lawyers have argued that Jordan should disregard statements about trying to close the clinic, a claim he greeted with skepticism in court.
More administrative steps would have to follow before the clinic could be shut. Sharlot said the clinic would have 10 calendar days to respond to any findings. The state's lawyers have said that a facility not complying with a law would get at least 30 days before an administrative hearing. If a license is revoked at a hearing, the clinic would get 30 days to appeal that decision. Health department officials have said it could take as long as 10 months to close the clinic if it failed to comply.