TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - The lone abortion facility in Mississippi asked a federal court on Wednesday to block a new state law that will require doctors who perform the controversial procedure to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The law, set to take effect on Sunday, threatens to make Mississippi the only U.S. state without an abortion clinic. Some anti-abortion state lawmakers say they hope that would mean an end to abortions there.
The state’s sole clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, says the new measure is unconstitutional because it aims to effectively ban abortions in Mississippi.
The clinic is also seeking immediate relief from the court to be given more time to try to comply with the law, according to the lawsuit filed on its behalf by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.
Clinic representatives said they began applying for the necessary privileges after Mississippi’s Republican Governor Phil Bryant signed the measure into law in mid-April. But they have struggled to obtain them at any of the half-dozen hospitals within a 30-minute drive of the clinic, located in Jackson, the state capital.
“We have been attempting to comply with the law, but we just have not had adequate time for the privileges to come through, if they come through,” clinic owner Diane Derzis told Reuters. “We’ve not been turned down outright, except on a few hospitals that had religious beliefs that didn’t coincide.”
The state legislator who sponsored the law said he was not surprised by the legal challenge, and he felt confident it would withstand the court test.
“It’s been over 70 days since Gov. Bryant signed this legislation,” Republican Representative Sam Mims said. “For them to say we don’t have time, I just don’t buy that argument.”
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 as starting 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, Guttmacher spokeswoman Rebecca Wind said.
Inspectors from the Mississippi Department of Health, which is the state’s licensing agency for abortion clinics, still are planning to check on the clinic’s compliance with the law on Monday, agency spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said.
She declined to comment on Wednesday about the new lawsuit.
The clinic’s main three doctors, who all travel from outside of Mississippi to see patients, are already board-certified OB-GYNs.
If the facility has not complied with the requirement for admitting privileges by the inspection, it will get 10 working days to submit a plan outlining how it will remedy the situation within a reasonable time frame, Sharlot 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.
Mims had asked the department to deny Jackson Women’s Health Organization a grace period. He said he did not “want to give the facility 10 extra days to perform abortions” and was consulting attorneys on the legality of such a move.
Mims said the law was 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 Jackson Women’s Health Organization has been providing services in Mississippi since 1996. Clinic spokeswoman Betty 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.”
Mims 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 Eric Walsh