* Clinic challenges abortion law as unconstitutional
* Some lawmakers say hope law will end abortions in state
* State has low abortion rate, high teen pregnancy rate
(Updates with lawsuit filed)
By Emily Le Coz
TUPELO, Miss., June 27 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
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
"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
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, ag e ncy 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
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
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
"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)