By Emily Le Coz
TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - Mississippi's sole abortion clinic won a court battle on Friday to stay open while it challenges the constitutionality of a new state law requiring its doctors to have local hospital admitting privileges.
The law, which abortion rights advocates say is a thinly veiled attempt to ban abortions in Mississippi, has threatened to make Mississippi the only U.S. state without such a facility.
The law requires doctors who perform abortions to be board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology, and to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Supporters argue this is necessary to ensure women's safety.
U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan, in issuing a partial preliminary injunction, ruled on Friday that the clinic "will be permitted to operate lawfully while continuing their efforts to obtain privileges."
The ruling allows the new law to come into force "at least for now" but protects the abortion clinic - the Jackson Women's Health Organization - from any potential harm caused by the law, the judge wrote.
The measure was originally due to take effect on July 1. Following the mixed ruling, both supporters and opponents of the law claimed victory.
Republican Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said immediately after the ruling: "I am gratified with the court's decision," adding, "Mississippi will continue to defend this important measure as the legal process moves forward."
Sam Mims, who had sponsored the bill, said in a statement he was "confident that the new legislation will result in the improvement of healthcare for women."
Nancy Northup, president and CEO at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which provides legal counsel for the clinic, said the decision "ensured, for the time being, that anti-choice politicians ... cannot relegate the women of their state to a second class of citizens that can be denied their constitutional rights with the stroke of a legislator's pen."
CLINIC OPEN FOR NOW
Mississippi became a battleground for reproductive rights last fall when voters weighed in on a constitutional "personhood" amendment that defined life as starting at the moment eggs are fertilized. Voters handed abortion opponents a setback by rejecting the proposed amendment.
Undeterred, state lawmakers this spring passed legislation requiring abortion providers to be board certified in obstetrics and gynecology and to have staff with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
Representatives of the clinic had asked the U.S. District Court to issue the preliminary injunction. The ruling means the clinic can continue providing abortions for now.
"I think it's probably the best outcome we could have anticipated," said the clinic's owner, Diane Derzis. "Certainly, it's part of the process. We have to show that we have attempted to comply with the law. This is just part of the dance."
The clinic will still be subject to inspection by the state Department of Health and could ultimately lose its license, said Derzis, who anticipates an ongoing battle to remain open.
Neither of the clinic's two abortion doctors, who are certified in specialty areas, have been able to obtain admitting privileges at any of the local hospitals in Jackson despite a nearly three-month effort.
"I'm issuing an invitation for Governor Bryant and the lieutenant governor and Mr. Mims and everyone who has been real concerned about this to help us obtain these privileges," Derzis said.
Mississippi, which had as many as 14 abortion providers in the early 1980s, already has some of the country's strictest abortion laws and one of the lowest abortion rates.
It also has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the United States - more than 60 percent above the national average in 2010.
(Reporting By Emily Le Coz; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Todd Eastham)
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