News Law and Policy

Fifth Circuit Hears Arguments in Mississippi Admitting Privileges Case

Jessica Mason Pieklo

If the federal appeals court overturns a lower court order blocking Mississippi's hospital admitting privileges law, the state could lose its only remaining abortion clinic.

The question of the constitutionality of Mississippi’s anti-choice admitting privileges law is back before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit as a three-judge panel hears arguments in the fight to keep Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic open.

Signed into law in April 2012, HB 1390 mandates that any physician performing abortions in the state have admitting privileges at an area hospital. The law is similar to measures passed in Texas, Wisconsin, and Alabama. Following the lawsuit brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization and Dr. Willie Parker, the law was partially blocked in July 2012 and later fully blocked in April 2013. The state has asked the Fifth Circuit to overturn that decision, while challengers argue the law should remain permanently blocked.

The Jackson Women’s Health Organization has been the sole clinic offering abortion care in Mississippi since 2002. The next nearest clinics for Mississippians are about three hours away, across state lines in places like Alabama, which subjects anyone needing an abortion to a mandatory 24-hour waiting period. Alabama also recently passed a hospital admitting privileges law of its own that threatens to close three of the five remaining clinics in that state. A trial on the Alabama admitting privileges law is scheduled to begin in federal court on May 19.

So far, the Fifth Circuit has upheld the constitutionality of state hospital admitting privileges requirements, ruling in March that a similar Texas provision did not create an undue burden on abortion rights, despite the fact that after its implementation massive clinic closures swept the state, leaving an entire 400-mile stretch of the Rio Grande Valley without an abortion provider.

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This time, the Fifth Circuit will consider whether the state creates an undue burden on abortion rights when it passes a law that has the effect of closing every clinic in the state.

“The devastating impact of this unconstitutional law couldn’t be clearer. If it is allowed to take effect, Mississippi will become the first state since Roe v. Wade without a single clinic offering safe, legal abortion care,” said Julie Rikelman, litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement. “This is a blatant violation of women’s constitutional rights and an imminent danger to their health and well-being. We are hopeful that this court, like the district court that blocked the law, will continue to protect Mississippi women’s ability and constitutional right to safely and legally end a pregnancy without having to cross state lines.”

The Fifth Circuit is not expected to issue a ruling for several months.

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