Last Stand

Abortion Outposts in Arkansas, Dakotas Wary of Mississippi’s Fight

Three other states’ sole clinics are closely watching the fight over Mississippi’s law. By Allison Yarrow.

Mississippi’s lone abortion clinic will remain open for now, while three other U.S. states with just a single clinic look on anxiously.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Dan Jordan III temporarily extended his block on a new Mississippi state law that would have shuttered the Jackson Women’s Health Center. The law, which was set to go into effect July 1, mandates that the clinic’s two out-of-state doctors possess permits that local hospitals are refusing to grant them, which not just delegitimizes their practice, but renders it illegal. Jordan deferred his ruling—whether or not he will grant a preliminary injunction, the clinic is seeking to allow it to operate as usual—to an unknown date, but it could come as soon as the next few days, plaintiffs say.

The delay will allow the judge to review the Mississippi Department of Health’s “promulgation of rules” of the law, if it were implemented, according the the Center for Reproductive Rights, a plaintiff in the case. The decision may hinge on whether closing the state’s only clinic forces “undue burden” on Mississippi’s women, which would violate the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. This distinction is critical, particularly for women without financial means, says CRR President Nancy Northrup.

“A huge percent of [the clinic’s] clients don’t even have access to a car, let alone the ability to leave the state [for an abortion],” she said. “The courts are critical because when the state government has failed the women of Mississippi, the courts have to protect their constitutional rights.”

Proponents of the law say it ensures women’s safety, while still admitting they would prefer to see Mississippi be the first abortion-free state.

“Our goal is to restore a culture of life to our state and country. We seem to have lost that. Also to protect women from abortion. We see a lot of post-abortive women who have sad stories to tell,” said Beverly McMillan, a former abortion doctor turned antiabortion activist. McMillan and others say they realize the law may get tied up in the courts, and could be a long way off from taking effect.

“I don’t think we ever immediately expected to shut down this clinic,” McMillan said.

Mississippi is one of four states with only one surgical abortion clinic. The others are North Dakota, South Dakota, and Arkansas. Wyoming has no dedicated abortion clinic, but it has three providers that are either hospitals or private physicians. In 2008, some 90 Wyoming women had abortions in the state, while 1,000 women went out-of-state for the procedure, according to the most recent data available.

Clinics are being targeted with increasing hostility, administrators said. They describe coordinated efforts by antiabortion groups that organize vicious phone campaigns against doctors and clinic personnel and patrol clinic entrances with horrific images, signs, shouts, and jeers. States with only one clinic are particularly vulnerable to concentrated attacks, officials said.

But the gutting of safe access and responsible care is the most onerous measure for service providers and patients alike. In the first half of 2012, 39 restrictions to abortion access were passed by the 44 state legislatures that convened, according to new data from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights advocacy group. Three states passed 14 of these of these restrictions: Louisiana, Arizona, and South Dakota, whose full-service Planned Parenthood center is in Sioux Falls. Twenty-six states were determined to be “hostile to abortion,” which Guttmacher defined as legislating five or more abortion constraints.

Like Mississippi, South Dakota has long had laws decreeing parental consent for minors, pre-abortion counseling, and a 24-hour waiting period. In June, a federal judge blocked a law that would have given South Dakota the nation’s longest waiting period—72 hours. Abortion advocates say waiting periods and mandatory counseling obligations are orchestrated barriers to access.

In North Dakota, the Red River Women’s Clinic has been the only abortion clinic in that state since 2001. That state’s population—less than 700,000 people—could not support another, says clinic director Tammi Kromenaker. Red River treats about 25 patients each week, or between 1,200 and 1,300 each year; it performs procedures one day each week, Kromenaker said. North Dakota requires two-parent notification and custodial parent consent for minors, as well as a 24-hour waiting period.

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The clinic is suing the state along with CRR—which also represents the Jackson Women’s Health Organization—over a new law that would restrict medication abortions by mandating that any drug used must meet FDA protocols, a standard that is outdated. That bill passed because North Dakota lawmakers “misunderstand the role of the FDA in approving drugs,” Kromenaker said. She is optimistic about the case, which won’t be heard until April 2013, and is watching the developments in Mississippi, aware that the court outcome there may influence North Dakota’s own case.

“I hope that just like voters who spoke out in Mississippi against the personhood bill that sound judgment will prevail. Anti-choicers who want to eliminate abortion don’t understand that abortion doesn’t stop. People are still going to have unsafe abortions and travel long distances,” she said, adding that the closest clinic to North Dakota’s is nearly four hours away in Minnesota.

North Dakota’s legislature meets every other year, and Kromenaker is nervous about what new antiabortion measures might pass when the body goes back into session in 2013. “Personhood USA is already claiming victory in North Dakota. Key defeaters [of the 2011 bill] didn’t get reelected, or were redistricted out,” she said.

Staff at Arkansas’s Little Rock Family Services are so shaken by the events in neighboring Mississippi that they are loath to attract any extra attention at all, because it fuels their aggressors, they say.

“They feel they are having success in Mississippi and that makes them work harder to attack the state that has just one clinic,” said an administrator who declined to give a full name. The staff member added that voters and the media “need to pay more attention to what legislators are doing when these laws are proposed. Before they are passed.”

If Mississippi’s Jackson clinic is forced to close, that state will be the only one with no abortion provider.