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Mississippi legislature tightens restrictions on abortion providers

By Joe Sutton and Tom Watkins, CNN
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Thu April 5, 2012
Diane Derzis runs Mississippi's only abortion clinic.
Diane Derzis runs Mississippi's only abortion clinic. "We are not going to let the women of Mississippi down," she said.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mississippi lawmakers: Abortion providers must be OB/GYNs, have admitting privileges
  • Observers say it could force the state's lone abortion clinic to shut
  • Bill "will effectively end abortion in Mississippi," says Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves
  • "I am sick about this," says Planned Parenthood regional director for public policy

(CNN) -- Mississippi lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday that would require any physician performing abortions in the state to be a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and to have admitting privileges at an area hospital.

The bill "should effectively close the only abortion clinic in Mississippi," said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in a statement. "This is a strong bill that will effectively end abortion in Mississippi." If the state's only abortion facility, Jackson Women's Health Organization, closes, Mississippi women seeking abortions would have to leave the state.

The clinic's owner, Diane Derzis, said in a telephone interview that all her doctors are obstetrician-gynecologists, but only one has admitting privileges at an area hospital. She vowed to fight to remain open.

"We are going to do everything we can to remain there ... we are not going to let the women of Mississippi down," said Derzis.

Wednesday's vote by the state Senate is the latest in a string of attempts by lawmakers to close her facility, she said. Last year, the state introduced a bill known as the Personhood Amendment, which would have defined life as beginning at the moment of conception. The bill was defeated by voters in November.

Kirk Cameron on abortion

The bill is in a period for comment before it will be sent to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who has said he wants Mississippi to become "abortion-free."

"This legislation is an important step in strengthening abortion regulations and protecting the health and safety of women," he said after Wednesday's vote, in a statement.

"I am sick about this," said Felicia Brown-Williams, regional director of public policy for Planned Parenthood in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The bill "puts in place requirements that intentionally try to make it impossible for physicians to provide abortion services. ... Voters have already said that they want the government to stay out of decisions that should be made by a woman, her family and her physician."

She expressed hope the bill might not be sent to the governor. "We are asking Mississippians to reach out to their senators and ask them to reconsider their vote on this," she said.

Still, she acknowledged, the bill is likely to be tabled Thursday and then sent to Bryant.

There is no medical reason to require physicians performing abortions be board-certified OB/GYNs or that they have admitting privileges, Brown-Williams said. If the clinic stops offering abortion services because it is unable to find providers with those qualifications, the bill "would be a backdoor ban on abortion."

The Center for Reproductive Rights' state advocacy counsel, Jordan Goldberg, said that, if the goal of the legislation is to impose restrictions on abortion providers that are not imposed on other medical providers offering similar care, then "that would raise serious constitutional problems and a legal challenge would certainly be possible."

"It's not about medicine," she said. "It's just about politics."

Seven other states require abortion providers to have hospital privileges, but no other state requires that an abortion provider be an OB/GYN, said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute in Washington. "This bill is an attempt to make it so difficult to become an abortion provider that no one will do it."

Though the 1973 Supreme Court landmark decision in Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in all 50 states, Mississippi's bill could make the state the first where no abortions could be performed, she said.

"It's an attempt to eliminate access without taking on Roe directly."

In 2008, the last year for which data are available, 2,770 abortions were performed in the state, according to Guttmacher.

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