TUPELO, Miss., July 1 A federal judge on Sunday temporarily blocked Mississippi from enforcing a new law that requires doctors who perform abortions at the state's sole abortion clinic to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The state law, challenged last week by the Jackson Women's Health Organization, has threatened to make Mississippi the only U.S. state without an abortion clinic. It was set to take effect on Sunday.
U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Jordan entered a temporary restraining order and set a hearing for July 11 to determine whether it should be extended.
"In this case, plaintiffs have offered evidence - including quotes from significant legislative and executive officers - that the act's purpose is to eliminate abortions in Mississippi," Jordan found.
"They likewise submitted evidence that no safety or health concerns motivated its passage. This evidence has not yet been rebutted."
The law signed by Republican Governor Phil Bryant in April requires all doctors performing abortions at a Mississippi clinic to be certified in obstetrics and gynecology, as well as to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
"The federal judge's decision is disappointing, and Governor Bryant plans to work with state leaders to ensure this legislation properly takes effect as soon as possible," spokesman Mick Bullock said.
The clinic challenged the new measure as unconstitutional for aiming to effectively ban abortions in Mississippi, and also was seeking more time to comply with the law.
Doctors at the Jackson health clinic already are certified in obstetrics and gynecology, but have not been able to obtain privileges at any of the half dozen hospitals within a 30-minute drive from the clinic, despite trying since early May.
Republican state Representative Sam Mims, who sponsored the measure, said the law aims to protect women.
Clinic owner Dianze Derzis called it a political strategy to ban abortion in Mississippi without having to challenge Roe V. Wade. "It isn't about anything but putting that clinic out of business," Derzis told Reuters.
The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the clinic by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, cited several instances in which state lawmakers publicly voiced hope the law would make Mississippi abortion-free.
State health department inspectors had planned to check on the clinic's compliance with the law Monday, but no inspection will take place, a department spokeswoman said.
Attorneys for the state health department said in court papers the clinic had ample time in the appeals process to explore options without seeking a court injunction.
But clinic attorneys said the clinic and its doctors would be putting themselves at risk by performing abortions outside the letter of the law - despite the appeals process.
"Today's decision reaffirms the fundamental constitutional rights of women in Mississippi and ensures the Jackson Women's Health Organization can continue providing the critical reproductive health care that they have offered to women for the last 17 years," said Nancy Northup, president and chief executive at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Mims said he was disappointed by the injunction, "but the courts have spoken, and we'll let the legal process begin."
Mississippi already has some of the country's strictest abortion laws and one of the lowest abortion rates. It also has the highest teenage 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 rejected the proposed amendment.
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.
The Jackson Women's Health Organization has been providing services in Mississippi since 1996. The nearest clinics outside the state are in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana. (Reporting by Emily Le Coz; Editing by David Bailey)