Center for Reproductive Rights Takes Legal Action to Keep Last Abortion Clinic in Mississippi Open
New federal lawsuit challenges unconstitutional state law designed to halt reproductive health services for all women in the state as of July 1
06.27.12 - (PRESS RELEASE) Mississippi’s latest attempt to shut down its one remaining clinic providing abortion services would effectively ban abortion in the state and is patently unconstitutional, according a new legal challenge filed in federal court today by the Center for Reproductive Rights.
House Bill 1390, which was signed into law on April 16, imposes medically unwarranted requirements that any physician performing abortions in the state be a board certified or eligible obstetrician-gynecologist with admitting privileges at an area hospital.
On June 22, the Mississippi Department of Health (DOH) notified the Jackson Women’s Health Clinic it had reversed its decision to follow the state’s normal rulemaking process—which would have delayed enforcement of the measure until mid-August—after extraordinary political pressure to fully enforce the law as of July 1.Contrary to previous indications from the department, DOH also refused to issue a renewal license to the clinic while the rulemaking process was ongoing.
Although all the doctors currently employed at the Mississippi clinic are certified ob-gyns, the physicians responsible for the lion’s share of the clinic’s patients have not been given enough time to secure admitting privileges at a local hospital.
Today’s lawsuit claims that this law clearly threatens the health of women seeking abortions and deprives women of their constitutionally-protected right to decide when and whether to have children. The Center for Reproductive Rights, representing the Jackson Women’s Health Organization and Dr. Willie Parker, seeks immediate injunctive relief not just from the DOH’s arbitrary decision not to give the clinic meaningful opportunity to comply, but also to block the new law completely on the ground that it has the unconstitutional purpose of banning abortion in Mississippi.
“For years, we have been beating back Mississippi’s underhanded tactics to close the only abortion clinic in the state,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Mississippi lawmakers’ hostility to women and their reproductive rights does not give them license to violate their constitutional rights.
“This measure would force Mississippi women who are already facing difficult circumstances to travel hundreds of miles to a neighboring state to get an abortion. That is simply not an option for many poor and working-class women, and will certainly lead some to consider unsafe and illegal alternatives that pose grave risks to their health, lives, and reproductive future.”
State Representative Sam Mims, the measure’s sponsor, sent a letter to the DOH on June 20—two days before the health department reversed its decision to delay enforcement—demanding the state health officer “personally insure that the provisions of HB 1390 are fully enforced by the department on the first business day after the law’s effective date of July 1, 2012.” Mims has previously stated that the goal of the legislation was to “cause fewer abortions in Mississippi.”
Supporters of the measure have made it abundantly clear the regulations were intended to shut the clinic down:
- Governor Phil Bryant, when vowing to sign the bill, said that he would “continue to work to make Mississippi abortion-free.”
- The state’s Lt. Governor Tate Reeves stated that “the measure should effectively close Mississippi’s only abortion clinic” and “end abortion in Mississippi” when the bill passed the state Senate in April.
- State Senator Merle Flowers told reporters that “There's only one abortion clinic in Mississippi. I hope this measure shuts that down.”
- State Representative Bubba Carpenter recently told a group of local county Republicans that “We have literally stopped abortion in the state of Mississippi,” and that “the other side [is] like, ‘Well, the poor pitiful women that can't afford to go out of state are just going to start doing them at home with a coat hanger.’ That's what we've heard over and over and over. But hey, you have to have moral values.”
The Jackson Women’s Health Organization has served Mississippi women and families for 17 years, and has been the sole reproductive health care provider offering abortion in the state since 2002. The next nearest clinics for Mississippi residents is approximately three hours away, with most neighboring states requiring a mandatory waiting period.
“The Jackson Women’s Health Organization is already subject to some of the most onerous and burdensome restrictions for a reproductive health clinic in the country,” said Michelle Movahed, staff attorney at the Center. “And time and time again, the clinic has remained steadfastly committed to the health and safety of women in Mississippi and has continued to find ways to keep its doors open.
“There is absolutely no reason, other than a politically-motivated one, for the health department to make this unprecedented eleventh hour decision to force the clinic to meet a requirement that is impossible to satisfy.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, less than 0.3 percent of abortion patients in the United States experience a complication that requires hospitalization.
Federal courts have struck down unnecessarily burdensome regulations on Mississippi reproductive health care providers in the past. In 2004, the Center for Reproductive Rights successfully challenged a Mississippi law that would have virtually banned abortions after the first trimester, requiring second trimester procedures to be performed in hospitals or ambulatory surgical facilities. A U.S. district judge declared the law unconstitutional, recognizing that it did nothing to protect the health and safety of women who choose abortion despite the state legislature's claims.
In 1996, a federal district court struck down Mississippi regulations requiring physicians performing abortions to have completed a residency in ob-gyn in Pro-Choice Mississippi v. Thompson, stating that the state could not show “there is a reasonable medical necessity directed to preserve the woman’s health in requiring ob-gyn residency training for all physicians performing abortions.”
The Center filed the suit, Jackson Women’s Health Organization & Willie Parker, M.D., M.P.H., M.Sc. v. Mary Currier, M.D., M.P.H. & Robert Shuler Smith, with Michelle Movahed as lead counsel, along with local counsel Robert B. McDuff in Jackson, Miss.