In Mississippi, there’s only one abortion clinic remaining — and because of a law passed earlier this year that is designed to protect women’s health, it may soon close.
In April, Mississippi passed a law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital. However, at the one remaining abortion facility — Jackson Women’s Health Organization — there are three doctors, and only one has admitting privileges.
“We believe wholeheartedly that this is a health issue for women,” says Mississippi Republican House member Sam Mims, who sponsored the bill. “Having an abortion is a very serious procedure, and we hope and pray that nothing goes wrong during the procedure. But if it does, the physicians ought to be able to follow that patient into a local hospital.”
“The purpose is to make certain that people don’t just fly in once a week and perform abortions — or anything else of a surgical nature — and then fly out, leaving young women to their own devices,” says Barbara Whitehead, president of Mississippi Right to Life.
“If there’s a nurse there, that’s fine, but a nurse is not a doctor,” Whitehead adds. “If there is a problem, after that doctor who has flown in for one day has flown back out, then somebody has got to say, ‘Yes, you need to get to get to the emergency room.’” The Jackson Women’s Health Organization did not return National Review’s call, but according to a piece in July in the New York Times, two of the three clinic doctors who perform abortions in Mississippi live outside the state.
The clinic is fighting the new law. The state health department granted the clinic six months to come into compliance with the state law. “This is a health-care facility, and our state statute gives such a facility no less than six months to become compliant,” Mims explains. “You do want a health-care facility to become compliant with new regulations and new laws that are passed, so you give them no less than six months.”
On January 11, that six-month period will be over. And there is virtually no chance the clinic will be in compliance with the new law: According to the Center for Reproductive Right’s Michelle Movahed, who is a lead attorney on the case, area hospitals have denied admitting privileges to the doctors who perform abortions.
“Each of the seven [local hospitals] refused to extend privileges,” Movahed says. “One hospital said it was a closed medical staff, so you could not apply for privileges unless you were already on the faculty. Another hospital said you could get an application only if — among other things — you got a letter from another doctor already on the medical staff of the hospital . . . and none of the doctors would provide that letter.”
“The other five hospitals allowed the doctors to apply,” she says. “But apparently, in the denial letters, they said they stopped reviewing the applications. They didn’t even consider the merits, because of hospital policies concerning abortion and because of their concern about the effect on relationships in the community of granting privileges to the doctors.”
Despite these setbacks, the clinic is determined to stay open. They will continue to provide abortions and see no problem with the fact that only one of their three doctors has admitting privileges to nearby hospitals.
Mississippi isn’t the only state with a law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges; according to Americans United for Life, eleven other states currently have such laws. But Mississippi’s law is unique in that it could be the final straw for the state’s last abortion clinic.
“Mississippi is one of a few states that has an admitting-privileges law, but in Mississippi, both the circumstances surrounding the law’s passage and the actual impact of the law make clear that its purpose and effect are to end abortion in the state,” Movahed says.
Movahed may be right about the law’s intent: Around the time the law was passed, some politicians said they hoped it would lead to the closing of Mississippi’s last clinic. “Today you see the first step in a movement to do what we campaigned on . . . to try to end abortion in Mississippi,” said the state’s governor, Phil Bryant. “This is a strong bill that will effectively end abortion in Mississippi,” said Mississippi lieutenant governor Tate Reeves in a statement.
But Mims denies that the bill’s purpose was to close the Jackson Women’s Health organization. Roe v. Wade, “the mandate that abortions be legal in all states,” is still the law of the land, he observes. Nowhere in the three pages of legislation is there any discussion of “when a person can get an abortion, where a person can, why she can, or what exceptions exist,” he says. “None of that is in the legislation. The only issue that is addressed in the legislation is the requirement that physicians have privileges in a local hospital.”
Movahed is working to get the law deemed unconstitutional. “We’ve claimed that the law violates the United States Constitution because it has the unconditional effect of preventing women from accessing abortion care in the state. So that’s claim one. Claim two is that the law . . . [has] the impermissible purpose of ending abortion in the state.”
Whitehead isn’t surprised that the law is facing legal challenges. But she takes a long view: For one thing, pro-lifers weren’t even able to get the bill passed in previous attempts. And for another, Whitehead sees plenty of progress during the many years she has spent working for the pro-life cause.
“We had a number of abortion facilities in the state,” Whitehead says of Mississippi at the time she became involved in the pro-life movement, almost 30 years ago. “And there were no laws. As we used to say, ‘It’s safer to take your dog to the vet than for a woman to go to an abortion facility, because there are higher standards of cleanliness at the vet’s office.’ There were no standards. And we fought and we fought and we fought, and we finally got some laws through.”