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Mississippi’s Only Abortion Clinic at Risk

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. On his way in, he may pass Prof. Matt Friedeman, standing on the sidewalk with a Bible and a handful of pamphlets, having made the four-minute drive from his home as he has done once a week for years.

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. On his way in, he may pass Prof. Matt Friedeman, standing on the sidewalk with a Bible and a handful of pamphlets, having made the four-minute drive from his home as he has done once a week for years.

And once inside, Dr. 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 J.W.H.O. do not currently meet this requirement; three out of four of them, including Dr. 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 on the Monday morning of 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,” she said.

But State Representative 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 on 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 on Friday, Mr. 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.

One state legislator, Bubba Carpenter, was videotaped in May telling a gathering of Republicans that with the new law the Legislature had “literally stopped abortion in the state of Mississippi.”

Representative 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. The new law, after all, passed the Legislature with bipartisan support.

Mississippi is also 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. Of the 2,297 women who had abortions in Mississippi in 2010, according to the State Department of Health, most were unmarried, most already had at least one child and more than three-quarters were black.

Dr. Parker, 49, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., cites these demographics as one of the reasons he decided to come back to the South.

For the first dozen years of his medical career, working in California, Hawaii and Michigan, he did not perform or even allow himself to think too much about abortions. But eventually, he said, he encountered too many cases of women whose pregnancies endangered their health or who said they were too poor to raise a child.

“To know it is to become responsible,” said Dr. Parker, who later became the medical director at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington. He only recently started at the clinic but is planning to make monthly trips here, if the clinic does not go away. “I shudder to think of the consequences,” he said.

Outside the building, Professor Friedeman, 53, who teaches at a Jackson seminary and pastors a church nearby, stood on the hot sidewalk, offering pamphlets to the women, who came and went and mostly ignored him. He asked to pray with them, saying, “The Lord wants you to love that baby.”

A man walking by the clinic with his daughter told him, in coarse terms, to mind his own business. It did not faze Professor Friedeman much: he has been doing this for 12 years, first at a clinic across town, and more recently at this one, the last one.

“A praying man often asks for the impossible, and it can be a surprise when it happens,” he said, contemplating the end of his visits. “You get to where a part of this is a part of who you are.”

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