DOCTORS, GROUP SUE TO PREVENT STATE FROM ENFORCING ABORTION RULES
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON - Two Mississippi doctors and an abortion rights group have filed a federal lawsuit to keep the state from enforcing the guidelines in an abortion law passed during the 1996 session of the Mississippi Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kirk Fordice.
The law requires the state Department of Health to license any clinic that performs 10 abortions per month or 100 a year as an abortion clinic. The state was supposed to start enforcing the law Monday, but clinics that could be closed down because of the new guidelines have up to six months to conform.
"The new law does nothing to improve the safety of reproductive health care in Mississippi," said Sally Holt, a spokeswoman for Pro-Choice Mississippi. "It only places roadblocks in the way of physicians who are trying to provide safe, accessible abortions."
Rob McDuff, a Jackson attorney who filed the lawsuit, said the law does not affect the state's current two abortion clinics, which are located in Jackson. But the law places an undue hardship on other doctors who might perform some abortions. Before the new law was passed, any clinic where 50 percent of its business came from abortions was licensed as an abortion clinic. These clinics already had to meet the strict guidelines.
Under the new law, any doctor who might perform some abortions in addition to his or her regular practice must meet the strict and costly guidelines. Dr. Joseph Booker, a Gulfport physician, and Dr. Herbert Hicks, a Natchez physician, have joined with Pro-Choice Mississippi in filing the lawsuit. The Mississippi Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also is involved in the lawsuit.
McDuff said about 5 percent of Hicks' business and about 40 percent of Booker's business come from abortions. Yet because they perform more than 10 abortions per month, they must meet expensive guidelines, which will result in their having to quit performing abortions.
Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who wrote the bill, said any clinic that performs 10 abortions a month should be considered an abortion clinic.
"These are not undue regulations," Nunnelee said.
Those regulations, according to the lawsuit, include requiring each abortion facility to have expensive equipment and a specified number of rooms, such as separate doctors' and nurses' locker rooms. In addition, the lawsuit said there must be a registered nurse at the clinic even though the doctor does not need the nurse and a preoperative anesthesia evaluation must be done even though a local anesthetic is used.
Nunnelee said all the regulations are designed to protect the women, not to put the facilities out of business. For instance, he pointed out the halls in the clinic must be 6 feet wide so that a stretcher can maneuver easily in the building if need be. Another requirement, he said, is that the clinic be within 30 minutes of a hospital with an emergency room in case there are complications.
But opponents of the law said Mississippi already has some of the toughest abortion laws in the country. In 1991, the Legislature passed a law requiring a 24-hour waiting period and parental consent for minors. Coupled with the new law, soon only affluent people in the state will be able to afford an abortion, said Holt of Pro-Choice Mississippi.
The lawsuit will be heard by Federal Judge William Barbour Jr. of the Southern District. Anticipating the lawsuit, a spokesman for Attorney General Mike Moore said his office already has asked a federal judge to rule on the constitutionality of the law.