JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi could soon become the only state without an abortion clinic because of a new law taking effect this weekend. Critics say the law would force women to drive hours across the state line to obtain a constitutionally protected procedure, or could even force some to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.
Top officials, including the governor, say limiting the number of abortions is exactly what they have in mind.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant frequently says he wants Mississippi to be "abortion-free."
"If it closes that clinic, then so be it," Bryant said as in April as he signed the law, which takes effect Sunday.
Abortion rights supporters have sued, asking a judge to temporarily block the law from taking effect. So far, that hasn't happened.
The law requires anyone performing abortions at the state's only clinic to be an OB-GYN with privileges to admit patients to a local hospital. Such privileges can be difficult to obtain, and the clinic contends the mandate is designed to put it out of business. A clinic spokeswoman, Betty Thompson, has said the two physicians who do abortions there are OB-GYNs who travel from other states.
Michelle Movahed of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights is one of the attorneys representing the Mississippi clinic in its federal lawsuit. She said in an interview Friday that several states — including Mississippi, Kansas and Oklahoma — have tried in the past two or three years to chip away at access to abortion.
"One of the things that has really been surprising about Mississippi is how open the legislators and elected officials have been about their intentions," Movahed said. "They're not even pretending it's about public safety. They're openly saying they're using this law to try to shut down the last abortion provider in the state."
The lawsuit by the clinic, Jackson Women's Health Organization, notes that Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves says on his website that the new abortion law "not only protects the health of the mother but should close the only abortion clinic in Mississippi."
Religious-affiliated hospitals might not grant admitting privileges to those who perform elective abortions, while other hospitals might not grant them to out-of-state physicians who travel to Jackson to work at the clinic. As of Friday, the final business day before the new law kicks in Sunday, physicians working at the clinic had applied for the admitting privileges but hadn't received them.
The clinic says in the lawsuit that the admitting privileges are not medically necessary. It says complications from abortion are rare, and it notes that under previous state law, it already had an agreement with a Jackson physician who didn't do abortions but has admitting privileges and would help any clinic patient, if needed. Bryant and legislators who pushed the new law said they believe it will be safer for a woman who develops complications if the same doctor who does an abortion at a clinic can accompany her to a hospital rather than handing her case over to another physician.
State attorneys defending the law said in court documents that "the immediate concern that the clinic may be closed on July 1 is ill-founded." They cited administrative procedures the state Health Department uses in activating new laws.
Health Department inspectors intend to examine the clinic Monday to see if it is complying with the new law, a department spokeswoman said. If the clinic is not in compliance — which the clinic itself acknowledges will likely be the case — it would have 10 days to file a plan to correct its shortcomings. Then, an administrative hearing would be held at least 30 days later, and there could be an unspecified time allowed for an appeal.
The Jackson clinic sits a few miles north of the state Capitol, in a trendy neighborhood with upscale restaurants and vintage clothing stores. The nondescript building, with fading mauve paint, sits on a small hill on one of Jackson's busiest streets. A black vinyl tarp is attached to the fence leading from a parking lot to the patients' entrance, blocking most of the view from a public sidewalk where people gather several times a week to pray and protest.
Outside the clinic one day last week, at least a dozen people from a local Nazarene church sang hymns, read aloud from the Bible and prayed for an end to abortion. Among them was 51-year-old Patricia Frazier, who lives in the Jackson suburb of Clinton. Looking through an opening in the black tarp, Frazier spoke to a man who was standing by the clinic entrance. He had brought a woman to there for the counseling that state law requires at least 24 hours before an abortion can be done.
"You need me to help you with your friend?" Frazier asked over the fence.
The man, 30-year-old Girard Shirley of Jackson, smiled and slowly shook his head.
"Nah," Shirley said. "To be honest with you, I don't even know if the baby's mine, anyway."
Frazier showed Shirley a brown rubber model of a fetus at about 12 weeks' development — about the length of a grown woman's index finger. Shirley said he'd never given much thought to how that might look.
"Let her know we're here to help her — her and her baby," Frazier said.
Shirley listened and said, "Yeah, I'll talk to her."
"This is all about money. They want your money," Frazier said, nodding toward the clinic. "This help is free."
In an interview moments later, away from the people who were praying, Shirley said he had driven his friend to the clinic because she needed help and he needed gasoline money. Would he be willing to drive her out of state for an abortion if there were no clinic in Mississippi?
"I probably would take her," he said. He paused, then added: "No, I wouldn't. I got bad tires and stuff."
Two days later, Shirley said the woman he had driven to the clinic had stuck with her decision to have an abortion.
The state Health Department website shows 2,297 abortions, listed as "induced terminations," were performed in Mississippi in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics were available. The vast majority of those — 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.
Mississippi physicians who perform fewer than 10 abortions a month can avoid having their offices regulated as an abortion clinic, and thus avoid restrictions in the new law. The Health Department said it doesn't have a record of how many physicians perform fewer than 10 abortions a month. Clinic operators say almost all the abortions in the state are done in their building.
The clinic says if it closes, most women would have to go out of state to terminate a pregnancy — something that could create financial problems for people in one of the poorest states in the nation. From Jackson, it's about a 200-mile drive to clinics in New Orleans; Mobile, Ala.; or Memphis, Tenn.