Mississippi: last clinic standing under attack

When it comes to abortion rights, activists see the state as the "canary dying in the mine."

Published December 28, 2005 9:40PM (EST)

And you thought things in South Dakota were bad. From the Clarion-Ledger: Mississippi's only abortion clinic (only abortion clinic!), the Jackson Women's Health Organization, is "waiting to hear whether it will be granted a new state certification to continue performing its full range of procedures. The requirement to meet higher standards came after an aggressive push by anti-abortion advocates, who are trying to shut down the clinic."

"We have no intention of leaving and we intend to continue to provide the services that we're providing," said total rock star Susan Hill, president of the North Carolina-based National Women's Health Organization, which runs JWHO and clinics in five other states. "It won't be easy, but we're staying."

Longish legal story short, the state legislature is now aiming to bar abortions after 13 weeks -- except in places with "ambulatory surgical center" standards such as certain physical layout specifications and nurse-to-patient ratios. What most news coverage has not noted is this: (1) Mississippi already has on the books 35 pages of requirements for clinic facilities, even down to parking lot size, and (2): as Hill confirmed today when Broadsheet called her to check, such standards are not, well, standard. "There are plenty of states, probably half, that don't require second semester abortions to be done in a surgery-center type facility," she said. "And the irony is, we've been doing them up to 16 weeks in a clinic that's been licensed for ten years. These are new regulations for the same facility. And sheer punitive actions against women."

Most news coverage has also not mentioned that Mississippi has the highest teen birth rate, but there you go.

The clinic already meets many of the new requirements already. Some remaining details, however, may not be resolved until after the January deadline. (The clinic is hoping the state will grant a provisional license in the meantime.) Such as? For one, Hill says, they're concerned about the expense of the newly-required one nurse for every six patients. Another requirement: the clinic's doctors must have hospital admitting privileges. Thing is, the doctors -- heroically -- fly in from out of state because, Hill says, "We can't find anyone local who'll do it." ("They know we have out of state doctors," she adds, referring to those who came up with the requirement.) But guess what: to have admitting privileges, you must live in the state. So.

No matter what the outcome on this round, it's hard to believe that anti-abortion forces in the state will shrug and stop their harassment. (It's not like they're totally okay with first-semester abortions.) And, of course, I don't need to spell out how much suffering even a 13-week limit could cause the women of Mississippi. Under ideal circumstances, most abortions -- about 80% at the JWHO, says Hill - do take place early on. But when you're trying to save for the procedure while feeding your kids, and trying to figure out how the hell you're going to get to Jackson from Pascagoula -- never mind the 24-hour-waiting period -- without missing work, it's easy to see how trimester #2 could roll around before you know it.

As Sharon Lerner wrote this January in the Nation, "In Mississippi, in many ways, Roe has already fallen. Abortion is legal here, of course, as it must be throughout the country while the landmark ruling stands. Yet, for many women, the ability to terminate a pregnancy is out of reach, buried under state laws that make the process unnecessarily difficult, discouraged by a sense of shame enforced by practically every public authority, and inaccessible for many who lack money to pay for it."

And like South Dakota, Lerner writes, Mississippi is not just one random backwards place; it's a bellwether. "Prochoice activists see Mississippi as a glimpse of what might become the norm in a possible post-Roe future. 'It's the canary dying in the mine,' says Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights."

"Even while Roe stands," Lerner continues, "Mississippi is a cautionary tale for the rest of the country. 'It's what can happen if the constant strategy of chipping away at Roe is not met with sufficient push-back from the prochoice movement,' says Northrup. So in order to preserve the right to abortion, prochoice Americans would do well to learn how Mississippi all but eliminated it."

And in the meantime, perhaps Broadsheet readers would be moved to direct a small chunk of their year-end charitable giving -- it's deductible! -- to the Feminist Majority Foundation's National Clinic Accesss Project. 50% of the funds go to the Jackson Women's Health Organization.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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