Mississippi Law Could Force Women's Clinic To Close

A Mississippi health clinic that was scheduled to be closed got a reprieve. The Jackson Women's Health Organization is the only remaining clinic in the state where abortions are performed. A federal judge recently ruled the state can't enforce a new law that requires doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. The state, however, says its law is valid.

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The state of Mississippi has one clinic where abortions are performed, and its future is in doubt. A new law could force that single clinic to close. Meanwhile, the governor says he wants Mississippi to become the first abortion-free state in the nation. But NPR's Kathy Lohr reports that a recent ruling from a federal judge is allowing that clinic to stay open for now.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: In the historic Fondren district along North State Street, the Jackson Women's Health Organization is hard to miss. It's painted bright pink. A royal blue banner in bold white letters reads: This Clinic Stays Open. Protestors gather here almost daily.

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CAL ZASTRO: Friends, pregnancy is not a curse and abortion is not the cure. Pregnancy is a blessing.

LOHR: The clinic plays a radio outside so patients inside the clinic won't hear Cal Zastro. He's here trying to get women to change their minds about abortion.

ZASTRO: I'm confident that the Lord Jesus Christ will glorify his name and that Mississippi can be the first to protect every pre-born person by love and by law.

LOHR: So you believe this clinic will be shut down?

ZASTRO: Yes, ma'am.

LOHR: This clinic has been at the epicenter of the debate over abortion. The state is trying to close it because it has not complied with a new law. That law requires doctors who perform abortions to be certified OB/GYNs and to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

REPRESENTATIVE SAM MIMS: To us, it's a health care issue for women.

LOHR: That's state representative Sam Mims, who sponsored the bill. He says there are risks in any procedure.

MIMS: If something goes wrong during this procedure, we feel like that the physicians ought to be able to follow that patient at a local hospital.

LOHR: All the clinic's doctors are board-certified OB/GYNs, but they don't have admitting privileges. So since the law took effect last year, the clinic has been applying at every local hospital. Clinic director Shannon Brewer flips through a binder filled with copies of letters the clinic sent on behalf of its three doctors.

SHANNON BREWER: First we had to send out the letters to ask for the applications. Then we had to get the applications. The applications are like this thick. And we turned those back in.

LOHR: Brewer says religiously affiliated hospitals wouldn't accept applications. Others denied admitting privileges for administrative reasons, and she says there are other factors. Brewer reads from one of the denials. It says admitting privileges...

BREWER: ...would lead to both an internal and external disruption of this hospital's function and business within this community. They didn't want to have to deal with the abortion issue, basically.

LOHR: When Governor Phil Bryant signed the bill last year, he said he wanted to see the clinic close.

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GOVERNOR PHIL BRYANT: Oh, I think it's historic. 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.

LOHR: State officials declined to be interviewed about the law. The health department notified the clinic that it intended to revoke its license. But before that could happen, a federal judge stepped in and for now, stopped the state. Willie Parker is one of two doctors who regularly work at the Jackson clinic.

DR. WILLIE PARKER: Ironically or paradoxically, it will make abortion less safe by making it almost impossible to access.

LOHR: If the clinic closes, Parker says women would have to travel hundreds of miles to Alabama, Louisiana or Tennessee to get an abortion. He calls the law dangerous policy.

PARKER: The risk of complications from an abortion is less than 1 percent. To now require admitting privileges to the hospital for a procedure that rarely results in the need for hospitalization becomes kind of suspect.

LOHR: Half a dozen other states have passed similar laws, including North Dakota and Alabama this year. It's part of a larger national trend to increase restrictions on clinics across the nation. The Center for Reproductive Rights is fighting the Mississippi law in court. Litigation director Julie Rikelman calls the judge's recent ruling a victory.

JULIE RIKELMAN: He said it was very clear that if the law were allowed to go into effect it would force women in Mississippi to leave the state to obtain an abortion, and that that was unconstitutional.

LOHR: Inside the Jackson clinic, women watch TV, text their friends and read magazines.

DIANE DERZIS: It's a day at a time for us.

LOHR: Diane Derzis is the clinic's owner. She says the staff gets dozens of calls each week from women asking if the clinic is still open.

DERZIS: Jackson Women's Health has been clear from the beginning that we're going to do whatever it takes to make sure women do have a choice.

LOHR: The battle over Mississippi's last clinic continues in court. State officials are still backing their law and the clinic is fighting to permanently block it. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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