JACKSON, Miss. — A federal judge decided Wednesday to continue to block a state law that threatened to shut down Mississippi’s only abortion clinic and make it nearly impossible for a woman to get the procedure in the state.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Jordan III temporarily blocked the law on July 1 and extended that order Wednesday, though he did not say how long it would last.
The Supreme Court has ruled states can’t place undue burdens or substantial obstacles to women seeking abortion.
The state law would require anyone performing clinic abortions to be an OB-GYN with privileges to admit patients to a local hospital. The doctors at the clinic in Jackson do not have those privileges, and the clinic said the privileges aren’t medically necessary.
Supporters of the law said it’s meant to protect patients.
The clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, said it has been unable to obtain admitting privileges for its two out-of-state OB-GYNs because local hospitals have not responded to their requests.
Admitting privileges can be difficult to get because hospitals might not grant them to out-of-state physicians, or hospitals with religious affiliations might not give them to doctors who perform abortions, according to clinic owner Diane Derzis.
The clinic said it would face “irreparable harm” if the law were to be enforced because hospitals haven’t said when, or if, they’ll consider the admitting privileges.
The clinic wanted the judge to keep the law on hold to see if its doctors can get the privileges.
“If they’re denied or if the hospitals are dragging their feet, that’s going to be more clear evidence that there’s a substantial obstacle” to an abortion, clinic attorney Robert McDuff said.
The government said the privileges help protect patients by ensuring they have continuity of care if a woman needs to go to the hospital.
While the clinic might have to wait to get hospital privileges, “inconvenience is not ‘irreparable harm,’” the government has argued.
The Mississippi Attorney General’s Office declined to comment after the hearing.
The law was passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature. When Gov. Phil Bryant signed it, he said: “If it closes that clinic, then so be it.”
The governor has said he hopes the law will help make Mississippi “abortion-free.”
The state’s attorney had argued any anti-abortion statements by elected officials were “weak evidence” that the purpose of the law was to prevent abortions.
The clinic uses out-of-state physicians because in-state physicians generally don’t want to face the social pressure of having protesters at their offices, homes or churches, clinic employees said.
Opponents of the law said any patient experiencing complications could receive immediate care from emergency room physicians.
For the past several years, the clinic also has had a transfer agreement with a local OB-GYN who has hospital-admitting privileges. He doesn’t perform abortions at the clinic but provides backup help by agreeing to meet clinic patients at a hospital if there’s an emergency.
Clinic operators said almost all the abortions in the state are done in their building. They said in court papers the clinic did about 3,000 abortions in 18 months.
Terri Herring, of the Pro Life America Network, lobbied for the law and attended the court hearing. After the judge’s decision, Herring said the hospitals should deny admitting privileges for the abortion clinic’s doctors.
“There’s no vetting process for fly-by-night physicians who come in and perform abortions at the clinic,” Herring said.
Clinic owner Derzis said since she acquired Jackson Women’s Health Organization in 2010, no woman has had to be taken from the clinic by ambulance.
The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 established a nationwide right to abortion. In 1992, the court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey upheld the Roe decision and allowed states to regulate abortions before fetuses are viable. But the 1992 decision also said states may not place undue burdens or substantial obstacles to women seeking abortion.
If the clinic closed, the closest clinics to Jackson are 200 miles away, in Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama.
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 clinic’s owner, Derzis, has said the clinic is unlikely to stay open and perform that few abortions per month. The Health Department said it doesn’t have a record of how many physicians perform fewer than 10 abortions a month.