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With One Day Left, Mississippi Abortion Clinic Asks Judge For Reprieve

A man in a dark suit holds his hand up while speaking at a podium
Solicitor General Scott Stewart argues against a lawsuit filed by Mississippi's only abortion clinic, to remain open, before a special chancellor in Hinds County Chancery Court, Tuesday, July 5, 2022, in Jackson, Miss. If the court does not issue an injunction blocking a near-total abortion ban, the clinic will be forced to close on July 7, 2022 AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool

Mississippi’s only abortion clinic could be forced to cease operations in two days unless a judge agrees to block a near-total abortion ban from taking effect. In Hinds County Chancery Court this morning, an attorney for the Jackson Women’s Health Organization argued that the Mississippi State Constitution protects the right to abortion and asked Judge Debbra K. Halford to block the ban’s enforcement.

“Right now, the last day they can operate is tomorrow, July 6th,” Rob McDuff, an attorney with the Mississippi Center For Justice who is representing the clinic, told the Mississippi Free Press after the hearing this morning. “Now, if there is an injunction, the clinic will have to look at that to see how long the injunction is in place for, we’ll have to see if the attorney general appeals.”

The injunction clinic attorneys want would block a “trigger law” from taking effect that the Mississippi Legislature passed in 2007. Lawmakers set the law to become effective only if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that 1973 precedent on June 24, and Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch took steps on June 27 to make the trigger law enforceable 10 days afterward.

If the trigger law takes effect Thursday, it will “prohibit abortions in the state of Mississippi” at any stage “except in cases where necessary for the preservation of the mother’s life or where the pregnancy was caused by rape.” In order to obtain an abortion under the law, a rape victim would have to first report the assault to law enforcement.

Pink House: Block Trigger Law Based on 1998 Decision

On the same day Fitch certified the trigger law, lawyers for the Jackson Women’s Health Clinic, also known as the Pink House, filed a complaint, arguing that the court should block the trigger law’s enforcement because of a 1998 Mississippi Supreme Court decision. 

In that case, Pro-Choice Mississippi v. Fordice, the justices said that the state constitution does not recognize “an explicit right to an abortion,” but that “autonomous bodily integrity is protected under the right to privacy” and  “protected within the right of autonomous bodily integrity is an implicit right to have an abortion.”

a photo of a clinic escort standing outside the pink building and the sign "Jackson Women's Health Organization" next to a protestor holding a sign that says, "Keep Your Theology Out Of My Biology"
Supporters of abortion rights demonstrated outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization on Saturday, July 2, 2022, as the clinic continued to see patients. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Mississippi Solicitor General Scott G. Stewart, however, claimed that because that ruling was based on the reasoning in the Supreme Court’s decisions in Roe v. Wade in 1973 and subsequently in Casey v. Planned Parenthood in 1992, it means the 1998 Mississippi Supreme Court decision is no longer valid. Based on agreement between the parties, Judge Halford said she will only rule on the preliminary injunction sought by Jackson Women Health and hold off deciding the merit of the case until later. 

Based on Mississippi Supreme Court’s 1998 precedent, clinic lawyers say, the court should not only block the trigger law from taking effect, but also a six-week abortion ban the Legislature passed in 2019 that is currently in limbo in a federal appeals court. Regardless of the outcome, either party could appeal the current case all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court. 

“The question of whether the clinic will be able to open after July 6th really depends on what the chancery judge does and what the Mississippi Supreme Court does on any appeal from her decision,” McDuff told the Mississippi Free Press this morning. (McDuff is representing the Mississippi Free Press public-meetings case unrelated to this action.)

‘We’ll Have to See’

Asked if he thinks the Mississippi Supreme Court’s conservative majority could overturn its precedent in Pro-Choice Mississippi, McDuff said, “I don’t know.”

“I hope not. I hope they stick with the principle that appellate courts don’t overrule their decisions just because the composition of the court changes,” the attorney continued. “The right of an individual to make their own decisions in matters of pregnancy and childbirth is a right that has been observed in Mississippi during the past 50 years as a result of Roe v. Wade and a result of the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision in Pro-Choice v. Fordice. And it’s a right that women  in Mississippi have held during most of Mississippi’s history. 

“Only during a small period of time from 1952 to 1973 have women in Mississippi been unable to make this decision for themselves. So we’re hoping that the right is going to be restored and that the clinic will be able to stay open, but we’ll have to see,” McDuff added.

Judge Halford said she will issue a written decision, but did not say when. The clinic will be forced to close Thursday if she does not issue an injunction by that day.

See the MFP’s full coverage and archive on abortion rights in Mississippi here and the Jackson Free Press archive here.

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