New law could close Mississippi's sole abortion clinic
TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - Mississippi could become the only U.S. state without an abortion clinic if its lone facility is unable to comply with a law taking effect on Sunday that requires doctors who perform the procedure to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
Some anti-abortion lawmakers are openly saying they hope the new measure will end abortions in Mississippi. The state's sole clinic has struggled to obtain the necessary privileges for its physicians at any of the half dozen hospitals within a 30-minute drive, the clinic's spokeswoman said.
"The political climate is very hostile, particularly for the hospitals," said Betty Thompson, spokeswoman for Jackson Women's Health Organization, the clinic located in the state capital.
"I understand the position they're in as well, however, there is no legal or reasonable reason for us not to be available to take care of our own patients if we have problems."
Mississippi already has some of the country's strictest abortion laws and one of the lowest abortion rates. It also has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the United States - more than 60 percent above the national average in 2010.
The state became a battleground for reproductive rights last fall when voters weighed in on a constitutional "personhood" amendment that defined life at the moment eggs are fertilized. Voters handed abortion opponents a setback by rejecting the proposed amendment.
Undeterred, state lawmakers this spring passed legislation requiring abortion providers to be board certified in obstetrics and gynecology and to have staff with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
Thirty-nine other states also require that OB-GYNs perform abortions, and nine others mandate hospital privileges, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sexual and reproductive rights.
But Mississippi, which had as many as 14 abortion providers in the early 1980s, would be the first state without a single abortion clinic should the Jackson Women's Health Organization close, said Guttmacher spokeswoman Rebecca Wind.
The clinic began applying for admitting privileges in May after Mississippi's Republican Governor Phil Bryant signed the measure into law.
Representatives of the clinic said its main three doctors, who all travel from outside of Mississippi to see patients, already are board-certified OB-GYNs.
Inspectors from the Mississippi Department of Health, which is the state's licensing agency for abortion clinics, will check on the clinic's compliance with the new law on Monday, said agency spokeswoman Liz Sharlot.
If the facility has not complied by then, it will get 10 working days to submit a plan outlining how it will remedy the situation within a reasonable time frame, she said.
Sharlot said the definition of "reasonable" varies from case to case, leaving some uncertainty about how soon the clinic might be forced to close if it cannot comply. Sharlot noted that the abortion clinic has been aware of the law for months.
NO GRACE PERIOD
The state legislator who sponsored the law has asked the department to deny Jackson Women's Health Organization a grace period.
Republican Representative Sam Mims said he does not "want to give the facility 10 extra days to perform abortions" and is consulting attorneys on the legality of such a move.
Mims said the law is intended to protect patients by ensuring that physicians are certified and able to follow them into a local hospital in emergency cases, but added if it also "causes Mississippi to have fewer abortions, then that is a positive result."
The clinic and its supporters say they are doing everything they can to stay open. No option is off the table, including pursuing legal action to halt the "medically unnecessary regulations," said Julie Rikelman, litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which provides legal services for the Mississippi clinic.
"We are looking closely at every possible option to ensure the clinic continues to provide safe reproductive health care to the women of Mississippi without disruption," Rikelman said.
The Jackson Women's Health Organization has been providing services in Mississippi since 1996. Thompson said about 2,000 women received abortions at the clinic between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011. The staff also provides state-mandated counseling services to clients, some of whom ultimately chose to keep their babies, she said.
The nearest clinics outside the state are located in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana. But Thompson said not all women will be able to access those facilities.
"It puts an undue burden on women of all classes and colors, Thompson said. "I see us going back to the early '70s and what happened to women who did not have access. They tried to induce it for themselves or they went to people who were not qualified to do the procedures, and they sometimes died."
During a speech in May to a local Republican Party group, state Representative Bubba Carpenter acknowledged women could return to "coat hanger" abortions but said Mississippi had to start somewhere.
Mims, the law's sponsor, disputed that the measure could lead to such a scenario.
"I'm not at all worried," he said. "My hope is that the women that are making these choices will now choose life, that they will realize that life begins at conception."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Vicki Allen)
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