The state of Mississippi cannot enforce onerous admitting privileges designed to close the state’s lone abortion clinic, ruled a federal court ruled Monday. The Jackson Women’s Health Organization (JWHO) has served women and families in Mississippi for 17 years, and has been the sole reproductive health care provider offering abortion in the state since 2002. The next nearest clinics for Mississippi residents are approximately three hours away, with most neighboring states requiring a mandatory 24-hour waiting period.
House Bill 1390, which was signed into law in April 2012, imposes arbitrary and medically unwarranted restrictions requiring that any physician performing abortions in the state be a board-certified or eligible obstetrician-gynecologist with admitting privileges at an area hospital. After passage, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) on behalf of the JWHO and Dr. Willie Parker sued, arguing the law was unconstitutional. In July 2012 a federal court partially blocked the law, barring the state from imposing criminal and civil penalties on the clinic doctors and staff during the administrative process of attempting to comply with the admitting privileges regulation. State officials were preparing to revoke the clinic’s license following a hearing set for Thursday, April 18, 2013.
Despite the fact that all the doctors that currently provide abortions to women at JWHO are board-certified ob-gyns, CRR requested a new preliminary injunction after the physicians responsible for vast majority of the clinic’s physicians were denied privileges by the hospitals in the area. Several hospitals refused to even process the physicians’ applications, citing hospital policies on abortion care as the reason for the denial.
In Monday’s ruling U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III blocked all remaining forms of enforcement of the admitting privileges requirement, preventing the state Department of Health from revoking the clinic’s license for failing to comply with the new regulations. Lawyers defending the law argued that even if the clinic had to close as a result of the admitting privileges requirement, that closure would not be an undue burden on a woman’s right to an abortion because the law itself didn’t prevent abortions from taking place in the state.
This argument—whether or not forcing a woman to travel to another state to access abortion care is an undue burden—is central to anti-choice efforts to eliminate the protections of Roe v. Wade and key to the right’s effort to create states where legal abortions are simply not available. Thankfully the district court disagreed, noting that the arguments advanced by the state ” would result in a patchwork system where constitutional rights are available in some states but not others. It would also nullify over twenty years of post-Casey precedents because states could survive the undue-burden test by merely saying that abortions are available elsewhere.”
In a statement, Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights said: “While the women of Mississippi may be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief today, this fight is far from over. We will continue our work to see this underhanded attempt to ban abortions in Mississippi struck down as a violation of women’s constitutional reproductive rights.”
While this ruling has no direct effect in states like Alabama and North Dakota that have passed similar measures targeting their lone clinics for closure, it does set a good tone for the legal arguments moving forward and re-affirms that inherent in the right to choose an abortion is the right to have reasonable access to the procedure.