JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's abortion laws, already among the strictest in the nation, are poised to become even tighter after a push by social conservatives to shut down the state's only clinic providing the procedure.
Women's legal options could soon be restricted to finding a doctor willing to terminate a pregnancy or seeking an abortion out of state, which would prove difficult for people with little money.
A bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and awaiting the signature of GOP Gov. Phil Bryant requires anyone performing abortions in a clinic to be a certified OB-GYN with admitting privileges at a local hospital. Those privileges aren't easy for doctors to get, either because they live out of state or because some religious-affiliated hospitals might be unwilling to associate themselves with people who perform elective abortions.
Bryant says he'll sign the law in the next few days. It would take effect July 1.
"We want Mississippi to be abortion-free," the first-term governor proclaimed earlier this year.
Abortion-rights advocates say politicians are simply inviting an expensive court fight — one the clinic's owner has vowed to start if the facility can't meet the requirements. The advocates say the state is enacting a law that could be found unconstitutional under the framework of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established a nationwide right to abortion.
Those pushing the law defend its constitutionality and say admitting privileges are vital so doctors can continue to treat patients if complications arise from an abortion. Diane Derzis, who runs the Jackson Women's Health Organization, disputes that such privileges are needed. She says her clinic already has an agreement that allows patients with complications to be transferred immediately to a local hospital.
The admitting privileges provision could shutter the clinic by depriving it of the doctors it needs to operate. Only one of the three OB-GYNs who work at the clinic has been granted them. Derzis said the clinic will do everything it can to comply with the new law.
"And if we can't comply, we're going to sue," Derzis told The Associated Press.
Mississippi already requires a 24-hour waiting period for an abortion and parental or judicial consent for any minor seeking the procedure. It's also among the few states where only a single clinic operates. North Dakota and South Dakota each have one clinic.
The Mississippi clinic, surrounded by an iron fence woven with heavy black tarp, is in the trendy Jackson neighborhood of Fondren, a few miles north of the state Capitol. It's the site of frequent protests, including this week when abortion opponents patrolled a sidewalk lined with posters of bloody fetuses. One sang hymns and another screamed at cars driving away from the clinic.
A 27-year-old woman who went to the clinic for an abortion, said protesters persuaded her to keep her first baby when she was 16. But after she dropped out of school and had two more children, she decided she couldn't manage a fourth.
"It's a lot tougher when you start out young," said Jessica, who asked not to be identified by last name because of concerns about the social stigma of abortion in this conservative state. "When I quit school, I thought money coming in at that time was more important than the money I'd be getting later if I stayed in school."
If Mississippi's only abortion clinic closes, women could travel to surrounding states to terminate pregnancies. The closest clinics to Jackson are in Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans, both some 150 miles away. There are also clinics in Memphis, Tenn., and Mobile, Ala., which are close to Mississippi borders. Democratic Sen. David Jordan of Greenwood, who opposed the bill, warned that some women, particularly the poor, could seek dangerous illegal abortions if they can't afford a trip out of state.
Proponents dismiss the idea that the law will get shot down as unconstitutional. They say similar laws or regulations in other states, including those enacted by the South Carolina health department, have been challenged and upheld.
Without the clinic, elective, legal abortions could still be available at some doctors' offices in Mississippi — if women know where to look in this Bible Belt state. 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.
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.
The move to put new regulations on abortion comes a few months after 58 percent of Mississippi voters rejected a "personhood" ballot initiative that proposed to define life as beginning when a human egg is fertilized. After the defeat, abortion foes vowed to regroup and continue trying to find ways to make the procedure less available.
Social conservatives in Republican-controlled legislatures in other parts of the country, including Arizona and Virginia, recently have tried to pass laws to make getting an abortion more difficult.
Robert McDuff, a Jackson attorney who has handled cases for abortion-rights supporters, said he believes the new law is flawed. Documents show that in 1996, a federal judge blocked a Mississippi law that would've required anyone doing abortions in an abortion facility to complete an OB-GYN residency.
"A lot of politicians complain about big government, but yet they want the government to interfere with this very personal choice and force women to bear children at a point in their lives when they may not be ready to do so," McDuff said.
Doctors who work at the Mississippi clinic live out of state because they are routinely harassed, stalked or threatened, Derzis said. Betty Thompson, who formerly managed the clinic, said the danger is not new: "We had the FBI on our speed dial."
Frequent protester Roy McMillan of Jackson says he told a clinic doctor that his days were numbered. Since then, he's been required to stay 40 feet away. But he hasn't given up his fight.
"Mommy, please don't kill me mommy! I have a dream mommy," McMillan screamed through the windows of cars leaving the clinic.
Eight other states — Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah — require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges in local hospitals, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights group. The states all have at least one clinic.
Jordan Goldberg, state advocacy counsel for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, said court rulings about other states' admitting privileges requirements might not be binding if the Mississippi law is challenged.
"If the intent of the bill and the result of the bill are to shut down the only provider in the state, it may raise different constitutional questions than were raised in other cases where admitting privileges were an issue," Goldberg said.
Dana Chisholm, president-elect of Pro-Life Mississippi, was the last protester remaining outside the clinic one afternoon this week. Her tactics were decidedly different from McMillan's. She stood close to the entrance of the clinic and sang "Amazing Grace" and did Bible study when she was waiting for women to come outside. When they emerged, she told them she cares about them and wants to help.
Chisholm gave pamphlets to Chantal Willis, who went to clinic because she had a miscarriage.
"It's their choice, it's their decision," Willis said of the clinic's patients. "If their circumstances don't permit a child, they should have a clinic so they can make that decision."