By Emily Le Coz
TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - Mississippi's lone abortion clinic opened without incident on Monday after a last-minute court ruling prevented the state from enforcing a new law that could have forced it to close.
The Jackson Women's Health Organization had struggled to meet the demands of the controversial law that took effect on Sunday ahead of a state inspection scheduled for Monday.
But the inspection was scuttled when a federal judge on Sunday temporarily barred the state from requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
Experts said the legal fight could take months or years to resolve.
The ruling resulted in a routine day instead of a showdown for the clinic in Jackson, Mississippi's state capital. There were no abortions scheduled on Monday, but protesters stood outside as they do nearly every day, said clinic owner Diane Derzis.
"It's just like it always is," she said. "There's nothing different here today."
Attorneys for the clinic and the state will present their cases to a federal judge on July 11 on whether the temporary injunction should be extended.
The clinic argues that Mississippi's new law violates the constitution by placing undue restrictions on abortions.
Clinic doctors have not been able to obtain the necessary admitting privileges from any of the half-dozen hospitals within a 30-minute drive, despite trying since May, said clinic spokeswoman Betty Thompson.
The Mississippi Department of Health, named as a defendant in the case, argues that the clinic has had ample time to comply and would not face closure until it had exhausted an appeals process that could last at least two months.
The law has threatened to make Mississippi the only U.S. state without an abortion clinic and is expected to face an extended legal challenge. Abortion is a divisive issue in the United States that has long sparked heated debate.
"Both sides are passionate enough that it will be appealed to the Fifth Circuit, and from there, it's not very hard at all to conceive a leap to the U.S. Supreme Court," said Marty Wiseman, a political analyst at Mississippi State University in Starkville. "That will be several years down the road."
MIXED OPINIONS ON LEGALITY
Opinions differed on Monday as to whether the law would eventually be upheld.
Terri Herring, national director of the Pro Life America Network, based on Madison, Mississippi, predicted it would stand.
"Every pro-life law that has been passed in Mississippi has been challenged and followed by an injunction to stop enforcement," Herring said. "All of our laws, though, have eventually been upheld as constitutional."
Among them is a 1986 requirement that minors seeking abortions obtain parental consent and a 2004 mandate that abortion clinics be licensed as facilities that provide optional, outpatient surgical procedures. Both laws withstood legal challenges, though lawmakers ultimately modified the 2004 measure, allowing the Jackson Women's Health Organization to stay open, Herring said.
However, public comments by elected state leaders expressing their hope that the new law would close the Jackson clinic will make it difficult for the court to uphold it, said constitutional law expert George Cochran, a professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law in Oxford.
Cochran said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that states cannot pass laws posing substantial obstacles or undue burdens on a woman's right to an abortion. Mississippi's new law attempts to do just that, he said.
"I think there's a high probability that the plaintiffs will prevail," he said. "The governor has publicly stated that the purpose of this law is to shut down the clinic. It's pretty clear."
Mississippi, which once had as many as 14 abortion clinics, has some of America's strictest abortion laws and one of the lowest abortion rates. It also has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the United States - more than 60 percent above the national average in 2010.
Mississippi reported 55 births per 1,000 teens aged 15 to 19 in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, the teen birth rate dropped 9 percent from 2009 to 2010 to a historic low of 34.3 births per 1,000.
Mississippi became a battleground for reproductive rights in November when voters weighed in on a constitutional "personhood" amendment that defined life as starting at the moment eggs are fertilized. Voters rejected the amendment.
The legislation passed by state lawmakers this spring required abortion providers to be board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology - in addition to having staff with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
Thirty-nine other states require that OB-GYNs perform abortions, and nine others mandate hospital privileges, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to sexual and reproductive rights.
The Jackson Women's Health Organization has been operating in Mississippi since 1996, and its doctors perform about 2,000 abortion procedures a year. If it were to close, the nearest clinics are in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and; David Brunnstrom)