JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi's only abortion clinic sued Wednesday to stop a law that it says will effectively ban abortion in the state and endanger women's health by limiting access to the procedure.
Jackson Women's Health Organization said in the federal lawsuit that the measure would close the clinic, is unconstitutional and would ban abortion in Mississippi "by imposing medically unjustified requirements on physicians who perform abortions."
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said his goal is to eliminate abortions in the state, and on Wednesday he said "Mississippi stands ready to vigorously defend House Bill 1390," the new law.
When he signed the bill, Bryant responded to what effect the law could have on the state's only abortion clinic by saying, "If it closes that clinic, then so be it."
The law takes effect Sunday, but the clinic is asking a federal judge in Jackson to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the state from enforcing it.
The clinic said the unjustified requirement in the law is that it requires anyone who performs an abortion at a clinic to be an OB-GYN with privileges to admit patients to a local hospital. Lawmakers said that is for patients' safety. The lawsuit says it's impossible for the clinic's physicians to get local hospital admitting privileges by Sunday.
The privileges can be difficult to obtain, either because doctors live out of state or because religious-affiliated hospitals don't grant them to doctors who do abortions.
The clinic says in the lawsuit that complications after abortion are rare, and if a patient needs to be hospitalized, the clinic would transfer her by ambulance.
"The customary practice is for a facility that a patient in emergency situations to remain in contact with the physician who made the decision to transfer the patient, whether or not that physician has privileges at the facility," the lawsuit says.
Clinic spokeswoman Betty Thompson said last week that the three physicians who work at the clinic are OB-GYNs and have applied for privileges but haven't received them.
The lawsuit is filed against the head of the state Health Department, Dr. Mary Currier. The department's spokeswoman, Liz Sharlot, said Currier had been notified but it would be "inappropriate" for the department to comment on it.
"However, we will assure that this law is enforced in the same manner as we enforce all of our other state and federal health regulations and statutes for any health care facility in this state," Sharlot said.
Sharlot said any health facility in Mississippi is given time to comply with state laws or regulations, including 30 days to appeal if a license is revoked. The department plans to inspect the abortion clinic July 2, Sharlot said.
When Bryant signed the new restrictions on April 16, he also said: "Today you see the first step in a movement, I believe, to do what we campaigned on — to say we're going to try to end abortion in Mississippi."
The clinic says unless a judge blocks enforcement, it will "be forced to stop providing abortion care to the women in Mississippi as of July 1, 2012, leaving those women with nowhere else to turn."
Abortion clinics operate in the four states surrounding Mississippi — Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama. But all four require a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion can be done, as Mississippi does, and the wait could add to the expense of an out-of-state trip.
Outside the clinic Wednesday, more than a dozen adults and teenagers, and one boy who's in 4th grade, sang hymns and prayed for an end to abortion.
"Jesus loves these women, and this is not what he wants," said 19-year-old Gracie Clark of Jackson.
Courtney Smith of Hattiesburg took a relative to the clinic for pre-abortion counseling. She said the relative, who's 22, already has three children and was told by her doctor that another pregnancy could endanger her life.
"I love her to death. I don't want her to do it," Smith said of the relative's decision to have an abortion. "But I want her to do what's best for her health."
Clark smiled as she walked past Smith and said: "Let us know if we can pray for you." Smith nodded.
If Mississippi physicians perform 10 or fewer abortions a month, or 100 or fewer a year, they can avoid having their offices regulated as abortion facilities. But Thompson said it could be difficult for a patient to find a doctor willing to do an elective abortion.
The Mississippi State Department of Health website shows 2,297 abortions, listed as "induced terminations," were performed in the state in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics were available. Of that number, 2,251 were performed on Mississippi residents. The site does not specify how many were done at the clinic and how many in other offices or hospitals.