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Mississippi Legislature Passes Abortion Clinic Bill

Apr 04, 2012

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Kaiser Health News and NPR

The Mississippi legislature has passed a bill that will require any doctor performing abortions in the state to be a board-certified OB-GYN with admitting privileges at a local hospital. The change could make staffing the state’s sole abortion clinic very difficult, since most of the doctors who practice at Jackson Women’s Health live out-of-state and admitting privileges at the nearest hospital are given only to local physicians.

Jackson Women's Health, Mississippi's sole abortion clinic (AP File Photo by Rogelio V. Solis)

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to sign the bill into law within days.

Sen. Dean Kirby (R-Pearl) is the chairman of the public health committee that approved the bill. He says the measure is intended to make abortion as safe as possible.

"This doesn't make any reference as to whether abortions are legal or illegal in Mississippi. None at all. It just says you will be a board certified OB-GYN and have an admitting hospital," Kirby said.

The clinic currently has a patient transfer agreement with a local hospital, according to Diane Derzis, one of the owners of Jackson Women’s Health.

Derzis is decrying the bill as harassment and a waste of Mississippi taxpayer dollars. "I think it's very sad when Mississippi has the ranking that it does as one of the poorest states in the nation, if not the poorest, highest in maternal mortality, that we are worried about passing laws that have no bearing on women’s health," Derzis said. "Each year Mississippi taxpayers are having their money wasted with these guys … passing this kind of legislation which has nothing to do with women's health"

Derzis would not say which hospital the clinic has the transfer agreement.

"Why would I make them a target?" Derzis said. "We're already a target. My doctors are stalked, my doctors receive wanted posters, my doctors have a target on their backs. So I'm certainly not going to help them put that on there."

Derzis said one of the clinic's doctors already has admitting privileges and that all of her doctors are board-certified OB-GYNS.

"We're going to be fighting to the very end," she said.

Another controversial abortion restriction bill introduced in the state died in committee this week.

Known as the "Heartbeat Bill," the proposal would have required doctors to look for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion and would have outlawed the procedure if a heartbeat could be detected. The bill likely would have required controversial transvaginal ultrasounds for abortions in the very early stages of pregnancy. Also, it would have set a new standard for the time at which abortion could be banned because fetal heart beats can be detected as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

The bill had already passed the Mississippi House and was pending in a Senate committee. However, it was never brought up for a vote in that committee before a Tuesday deadline.

The committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan, said he didn’t bring the bill up, because he considered it unconstitutional.

"It has virtually no chance of withstanding a court challenge. What we can do? The restrictions we can place on abortions in the first trimester are very limited. And I think this would be unconstitutional based on Roe vs. Wade," Bryan said.

Bryan said he has supported anti-abortion measures in the past but didn't see a need to vote on "bill after bill after bill" to prove that he is anti-abortion.

Abortion has been a hot topic in Mississippi, with nearly two dozen bills introduced in this year's legislative session. The November election put Republicans in charge of both chambers of the legislature and the lieutenant governor and governor's seats for the first time since Reconstruction. Many anti-abortion advocates saw an opportunity to pass legislation, like the heartbeat bill, that had long stalled.

Terri Herring is one of the state's most active anti-abortion advocates. She blamed Lt. Governor Tate Reeves for sending the heartbeat bill to Bryan’s committee calling it the "kill committee."

Herring argues that the reason to pass bills like the heartbeat bill is to challenge federal laws keeping abortion legal.

"To say we are going to wait for the Supreme Court to change and overturn Roe V. Wade without sending bills that would possibly present that challenge is unrealistic," Herring said.

Herring said social change often comes through the power of the court as well as through legislative action.

The bill had high profile support from some of the most influential politicians in the state, including the governor and speaker of the house. Supporters of the bill say they are continuing to look for ways to revive the measure such as attaching it as an amendment to other legislation.

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