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NEW LAW JEOPARDIZES THE LAST ABORTION CLINIC IN MISSISSIPPI

JACKSON, Miss. - It was only recently that Dr. Willie Parker began flying down here from Washington, heading to work at a vaultlike building that sits unassumingly on a busy thoroughfare.

And once inside, Parker will begin seeing the young women who have made their way from all corners of the state to the Jackson Women's Health Organization, Mississippi's only abortion clinic.

All of these journeys may end soon after July 1, when a new Mississippi law goes into effect. The law, which was passed this spring by large margins in the state Legislature, requires all physicians associated with an abortion clinic to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

It is no secret that the physicians who do the majority of the work at the JWHO do not currently meet this requirement; three out of four of them, including Parker, do not even live in Mississippi.

"If it closes that clinic," Gov. Phil Bryant was quoted as saying during the bill-signing ceremony, "then so be it."

Mississippi would then be the only state with no abortion clinic.

Diane Derzis, who owns the clinic, has threatened to sue. But for now the doctors at the clinic have been applying to local hospitals for admission, a process that will almost certainly not be over by July 1. What will happen that week remains unclear. A spokeswoman for the State Department of Health said that even if state officials inspect the clinic early Monday, July 2, as they plan to do, the clinic would have 10 days to come up with a plan of compliance and "a reasonable amount of time" to put that plan into effect.

"It's not like they don't give them chances," said Terri Herring, who is the president of the state chapter of the Pro Life America Network and has been lobbying the Mississippi Legislature for stricter regulations on abortion clinics for more than 25 years. "We're dealing with a sacred cow."

But state Rep. Sam Mims, the sponsor of the law, is determined that things will move faster this time. In a June 20 letter, he asked the state health officer "to personally insure" that the law is fully enforced July 2 and said his expectation was that any clinic not in compliance "must immediately cease performing abortions" until the requirements are met.

In a brief interview Friday, Mims said that he was still discussing with legislative lawyers just how quickly the state was allowed to act.

For the clinic, it may simply be a matter of facing the threat of closing in either days or weeks, if the physicians are not granted admitting privileges. State officials are expecting a lawsuit if that happens.

Nine other states have local admitting requirements for abortion providers, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights. But in none of those states did such a rule effectively end abortion, and that will be the crux of the legal fight. Mississippi political leaders have said the law is intended to safeguard the health of women, but they have not been circumspect about the larger goal.

"This is the only state where the proponents are this honest about what exactly their motivation is," said Michelle Movahed, a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the clinic.

Mims said that the law does not outlaw abortion; the idea, he said, was to require physicians at the clinic to be able to follow their patients to a local hospital if complications arise. But, he added, "if this abortion clinic is closed, I think it's a great day for Mississippi."

Mississippi's abortion rate is already low, in part because of the restrictions currently in place. But it is not surprising that this may be the first state to have no abortion clinic.

Some were shocked by the sound defeat of the so-called personhood amendment last year, which would have defined a fertilized human egg as a legal person, but here that defeat is generally attributed to concerns about the scope of that amendment, not some deep support for abortion rights that had gone undetected.

Mississippi is the poorest state in the country and has the highest birth rate among teenagers, and the second-highest infant mortality rate, according to statistics compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. More than half of births here occur out of wedlock.

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