JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi’s effort to close its last abortion clinic was overturned in federal appellate court today. Advocates for the law said women with unwanted pregnancies could always travel to other states, but the judges said every state must guarantee constitutional rights, including abortion.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to overturn Mississippi’s 2012 law requiring abortion doctors to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
Ten states from Texas to Alabama have similar laws, which have forced a growing number of clinics to close. It wasn’t immediately clear how the ruling could affect these laws.
Many hospitals ignore or reject abortion doctors’ applications, and won’t grant privileges to out-of-state physicians. Both obstacles were encountered by the traveling doctors who staff Mississippi’s last clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
“Today’s ruling ensures women who have decided to end a pregnancy will continue, for now, to have access to safe, legal care in their home state,” said the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Nancy Northup.
Attorneys for Mississippi argued that if the state’s last clinic closed, women could get still abortions in other states. But the judges said the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision established a constitutional right to abortion for all citizens — and that Mississippi may not shift its obligations to other states.
“Pre-viability, a woman has the constitutional right to end her pregnancy by abortion,” wrote judges E. Grady Jolly of Mississippi and Stephen A. Higginson of Louisiana. The law signed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant “effectively extinguishes that right within Mississippi’s borders,” they said.
Bryant’s spokesman said he would comment once his staff has read the ruling.
Supporters of admitting-privileges laws say they protect women’s health by ensuring that a physician who performs an abortion in a clinic would also be able to treat the patient in a hospital in case of complications.
Opponents say the requirement is unnecessary, since patients in distress are automatically treated in emergency rooms, and that it gives religious-affiliated hospitals veto power over who can work in an abortion clinic and, by extension, whether a clinic can stay open.
A different panel of the 5th Circuit, which handles cases from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, upheld a 2013 Texas law requiring physicians to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. In that March ruling, the judges said traveling fewer than 150 miles to obtain an abortion is “not an undue burden.”
Attorneys defending the Mississippi law argued that women could drive to surrounding states, including Louisiana and Tennessee, for abortion if the only Mississippi clinic closed. But even now, women from Iuka, Mississippi, the state’s northeast corner, need to drive 280 miles to reach Jackson.
The clinic remains open, using out-of-state physicians who travel to Mississippi to do abortions several times a month. Hospitals often will only grant admitting privileges to local physicians. For years, the clinic has had an agreement with a local physician who will meet a patient at a Jackson hospital in case of complications. Clinic owner Diane Derzis has said such complications are rare.